Win Win

WIN WIN. Starring Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Rated M (Coarse language). 106 min.

This film is an American comedy-drama, based on a story written by Thomas McCarthy (who directed the film), and Joe Tiboni.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) works part-time as a wrestling coach at a High School in New Jersey, USA. He has high hopes for his team, but it loses nearly every game it plays, and its losing streak parallels Mike’s own life. At work, Mike is having trouble keeping his legal practice as Counsellor-at-Law afloat, and he hides his troubles from his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). He won’t bring himself to tell Jackie that he can’t pay his never-ending bills. A situation arises in court one day that gives him a way out, and he takes it. He gets himself appointed as the legal guardian of an elderly client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), and he sets Leo up in a retirement home, and collects his pay checks. Mike thinks this is the perfect way of keeping his business and family afloat, and he morally compromises himself to do it. Unexpectedly, Leo’s grandson, Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), arrives to visit after running away from home, and Mike welcomes Kyle into his own home. Suddenly a different family unit is being created, and everyone has to re-adapt. Kyle is a troubled teenager, but he is a talented wrestler, and Mike’s wrestling team starts winning. Mike believes he is now in a win-win situation, but his responsibilities multiply too quickly for him to cope.

The film is full of rich and wonderful performances from characters that inject great  humanity into the movie. It achieves an extraordinary mix of humour and pathos that blends together both drama and comedy. It is a simple story, but memorable, and helped along by a strong group of ensemble actors. The scripting is excellent, and Giamatti’s performance as the beleaguered attorney, trying to keep his life together and his legal practice going, is pitch-perfect. The film achieves the look of great authenticity.

At the core of the movie, despite its weaving plot, is the meaning of what it is to be a family, and the ups and downs of accepting a stranger into its midst. Kylie bonds to Mike quickly, and the two form a relationship that matures both of them into wiser people. The film offers many insights into the crises of life, and the characters that inhabit Mike’s world, though flawed, are entirely believable. Mike’s friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), for instance, is a bundle of nervous resentment after his wife left him for a building contractor, Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up, wanting Leo’s assets, and Jeffrey Tambor plays the role of an ageing, insecure co-coach.

This is a film of hope. In Jackie’s words, “we all do stupid things, but (generally) we have a second chance”. Small authentic moments of humour emerge effortlessly from the relationships that are established. There is almost perfect naturalness to every character that plays in it, and the film is well-edited and photographed. There is some strong language in it, but it occurs in context, and the film builds up to an emotional climax that works. At the end of the film, Mike accepts his responsibilities, and owns up to what he has done, as one knows he will.

The movie is not sentimental, and neither does it play down the unethical aspects of Mike’s behaviour of that of others around him. In achieving this, the film has an integrity about it that marks it as special.

The title of the movie doesn’t fit the movie at all. Superficially, it suggests competition and rivalry. Rather, this is a warm, and engaging film about people striving to be as good as they can be, which is comic and poignant. Though a little too neat in its unravelling, humanity leaps out from it, almost at every turn.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Twentieth Century Fox.

Out August 18th 2011.