As a drama, Win Win is exceptional—not unlike director Tom McCarthy’s last feature, The Visitor. Unfortunately, it occasionally gets its feet wet with comedy, which slightly derails the film. But on the whole, the good moments far outweigh the bad. This is definitely one of the year’s best independent efforts so far. It’s not one that I think is so good that it will weather its early release date and earn some Oscar buzz later this year; That’s just not in the cards. But it deserves a wider audience, if for nothing else, than to remind folks how damn good Paul Giamatti is.
Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a seemingly happy husband, father, and lawyer in small-town New Jersey. But all is not as it seems. His client pool has dried up, and he’s struggling to make ends meet. His part-time gig as high school wrestling coach is more frustrating than rewarding. And though he adores his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), he’s beginning to feel a little suffocated, to the point that he’s afraid to share his troubles with her.
Things change for Mike quite suddenly, when he discovers that one of his clients (who’s showing early stages of dementia) is offering $1,500 a month to whomever is willing to be his guardian. All this man wants is to live in his own home. Mike, however, sees an opportunity. He accepts guardianship, but puts the old man in a home, so he can collect the money without the responsibility attached. Though he knows it’s unethical, he’s desperate, and thankfully for him, it seems to have gone off without a hitch. But things get complicated when the man’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes to visit. He has no place to stay, so Mike puts him up. And when he finds out Kyle is an incredible wrestler, he uses the sport to give him a second chance and bring the troubled young man out of his shell.
The relationship that develops between Kyle and the Mike family is definitely Win Win‘s greatest strength. What starts out as a strange situation slowly becomes commonplace for these individuals and everyone around them. And the progression is believable. Kyle’s not so damaged as to make us think he couldn’t achieve redemption. And Mike and Jackie don’t go all in on him too quickly as to make us expect some kind of disastrous turn of events. Everything happens at a reasonable pace, which makes Win Win a bit of an anomaly as far as dysfunctional family dramas go.
My major qualm had to do with the few very broad comedic moments scattered throughout this otherwise serious motion picture. I’m not at all against these kind of scenes being included in even the most bleak films, but the comedy in Win Win just wasn’t all that funny. OK, I got a few kicks out of Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s assistant coach. But Bobby Canavale’s best friend character, in particular, bothered me. McCarthy might think he’s a three-dimensional character, as will other viewers, but I didn’t buy it. He’s on hand for almost all of Win Win‘s comic relief, including a very silly scene in which he tries to save Mike’s life when he experiences some chest pain. This sort of humor felt out of place to me, and I think the film would have been better overall without it.
The acting in Win Win is terrific from top to bottom, but unsurprisingly, Giamatti is the standout. He’s playing a good man that loses sight of his moral compass for just a moment, and he spends the rest of his time trying to right his ship. I don’t think this or any other role in the film carries a great deal of difficulty, but most the actors, especially Giamatti but also Amy Ryan and Alex Shaffer, imbue their characters with a great deal of subtlety. It’s why they won’t be remembered when it’s time for awards season, but it’s also why the film works so well.
Win Win sort of straddled the line between three and three and a half stars for me, but I ended up coming down on the side of the better rating because I felt so strongly for the film’s performances. McCarthy showed with The Visitor that subtlety is his strong suit, and that’s precisely what makes this film so good. It’s also quite apparent that when he abandons that, the film suffers. But the ratio between good and bad in Win Win skews heavily toward the former, which automatically makes it one of 2011’s best independent offerings so far.