By now we know what to expect from a Tom McCarthy movie. Middle-aged white guys with either financial or relationship problems reach a better place in their lives after meeting someone different from themselves. The Tri-State area and a well-respected actor (Peter Dinklage; Richard Jenkins) are always somehow involved. We know this because The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008) worked this angle so perfectly. McCarthy’s latest film, Win Win, follows this same pattern with the same funny, touching, and entertaining results.
Here the middle-aged white guy, New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, is played by Paul Giamatti, who is easily one of the most under-appreciated actors around. Mike is struggling with the many problems of suburban life: his law practice is barely afloat, he can’t pay the bills, he’s keeping it from his wife (Amy Ryan), and he coaches a consistently losing high school wrestling team. The boiler is literally about to blow.
Things suddenly improve when Mike becomes the guardian for an elderly client, Leo, and receives a payout from his estate. Things get even better – and more complicated – when Leo’s estranged grandson, Kyle, arrives from Ohio. The Flahertys take in shaggy blonde-haired Kyle (Alex Shaffer) and as luck would have it, he turns out be a wrestling prodigy. When his absentee mom shows up, she shakes up the newly formed family and threatens to blow the lid on Mike’s kind of sketchy dealings.
Win Win works brilliantly on many levels. It is a family dramedy made best largely thanks to the performances of the supporting cast. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale provide comic relief as Mike’s friends with their own set of middle-aged white guy issues (obnoxious stepson; divorce). Alex Shaffer surprises as Kyle, a kid dubbed “Eminem” early on and who doesn’t say much but gets his points across every time. The best scenes are between him and his surrogate parents. And the always incomparable Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife Jackie brings a fierceness to the role that is really best described as straight up Jersey. (Homegirl even rocks a Bon Jovi tattoo.)
Win Win is also a coming-of-age story and a sports film. The movie will easily draw comparisons to The Blind Side because of its troubled-foster-kid-joins-the-wrestling-team-and-everyone-becomes-better-because-of-it subplot. But it is no where near as unbearable and contrived as that movie. This is because Win Win does not depend on delivering a grandiose message or force-feeding an Oscar campaign down your throats.
Mike Flaherty is deeply flawed character (McCarthy’s protagonists always are) and is really no better than the people he wants to rise above. But by the grace of Giamatti’s performance, we want everything to work out for him with no consequences. Not for really his sake though, but rather for the people he keeps trying so hard to help and protect.
It helps that Win Win centers squarely on everyday American life and on a complicated family dynamic. The quirky aspects of American life – outcasts, immigrants, run-of-the-mill-lawyers – is something that Tom McCarthy shows off in all of his films but with varying degrees of success. Win Win is less gimmicky and some ways not as strong as McCarthy’s two previous films (The Visitor really comes to mind here) but the reward is just the same.