Sunday, October 16, 2011
Tom McCarthy's Win Win is a perfect small movie. McCarthy, who directed from his own screenplay, has an impressively firm grasp on the choices and compromises made by real people facing real problems. He is also adept at writing his characters so that they are neither insufferable saints or irredeemable villains.
It certainly helps that the cast of Win Win is populated by extremely talented but workmanlike actors. Perhaps the epitome of this type of acting, Paul Giamatti, stars here as Mike Flaherty, a small-town lawyer without enough clients to make ends meet. Running short of money to fix his dilapidated home and office, Flaherty is tempted by an opportunity that presents itself in the form of a demented old man named Leo(Burt Young, aka Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie). Flaherty convinces the court to appoint him as Leo's guardian, but then sticks him in an old-folks home anyway and pockets the money he's paid to take care of Leo. It's a very disappointing ethical lapse, one that you don't often see in film protagonists.
Things get even worse for Flaherty when Leo's previously unknown grandson Kyle shows up to live with his grandfather. Mike tells Kyle that Leo has to live in the home because the judge ordered it, and he agrees to let Kyle stay with him until they can contact his mother. While they wait for his mother to get out of rehab, Kyle and Mike bond over wrestling, and Kyle winds up joining the high school team that Mike coaches.
From there the plot continues along an unsurprising but still captivating line, with Kyle's mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) re-emerging and causing trouble, and the truth of Mike's misdeed coming to light. The real joy is in seeing this cast play out the story. Amy Ryan plays Mike's trusting wife Jackie, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale play Mike's friends and assistant coaches, and Emmy winner Margo Martindale has a small role as Cindy's attorney. The young man playing Kyle is actually a non-actor, but a talented wrestler named Alex Shaffer. I found his performance extremely naturalistic and appropriately underdone. I liked that he wasn't emoting, as other new actors might have been tempted to do.
Win Win is the kind of movie you wish more people would pay to see in the theater. It tells a story of real people that rings true to real life. It has more moral complexity than a whole summer's worth of blockbusters put together.