Review: Win Win, 2011, dir. Thomas McCarthy

The career of one Thomas McCarthy so far has been marked by an interest in the stories of outsiders, people removed from the societal norm either of their own volition or out of necessity. So his latest picture, Win Win, marks something of a departure from 2003’s The Station Agent and 2008’s The Visitor; rather than focus on taciturn men with dwarfism or explore the lives of illegal immigrants squatting in a stranger’s Manhattan apartment, McCarthy mires himself in a life that’s more familiar to the mainstream by portraying the life of a suburban New Jersey family and the efforts of patriarch Paul Giamatti to make ends meet during the stress of America’s economic recovery. But the change of scenery should fool no one, as McCarthy digs right in and, wading through the everyday of middle class living, finds a wealth of compelling material to pore over nonetheless.

At the center of Win Win is Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a lawyer by day and high school wrestling coach by night whose practice is sagging and whose team is on an apparently never-ending losing streak. He’s coming close to the end of his rope, but seems incapable of motivating himself to find solutions to his varying misfortunes until opportunity knocks, twice and in rapid succession, and drops them right in his lap. During a court hearing, Mike  almost impulsively assumes guardianship of an elderly client (Burt Young) solely to collect a substantial monthly stipend as compensation; somewhat callously, he moves the man into a nursing home so as to avoid dealing with him; this lends itself to further problems when the man’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) appears in town looking for him, with his addict mother (Melanie Lynskey) not too far behind.

Who knew that real life could be so complicated*? If nothing else, the debacle Mike engineers for himself teaches him how to proactively handle his problems instead of hoping the universe takes care of them for him, though neither of his solutions to his new woes actually solve anything in any permanent sense. Continuing the cycle started by his courtroom decision, they just create additional challenges for Mike to answer. But things can only go so far before they come crashing down, and in between Mike has to balance his role as a father to his two daughters, a husband to his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), and a support system to his friend Terry ( Bobby Cannavale), who’s dealing with his own troubles.

Win Win very much is about how people shape their own situations through their actions (or lack thereof);  Mike can only blame himself for what transpires in the film’s third act while Terry, struggling to reconcile his failed marriage, spends his free time spying on his ex-wife’s liaisons with the general contractor she’s shtupping. But the picture never imposes judgment on these characters for their shortcomings or vilifies them for taking actions that are at best questionable in the ethics department. In fact, Win Win very much exists in shades of grey– no one could call Mike a bad person by any stretch of the means, just someone whose desperation is fast closing in on him and leads him to make a decision less than admirable but ultimately understandable.

Life, according to McCarthy, is alternately sweet and prickly. Moments of genuine warmth intertwine with the times at which the players in the story are at their worst. Saccharine, overcooked, and disingenuous filmmaking dictates that these elements can’t co-exist in any reasonable facsimile of reality, but McCarthy’s too much of a realist to follow this line of storytelling. Frankly, it takes a level of chutzpah to tell a family drama and allow the characters to just be themselves rather than force them into an expected, particular mold and presume that they’ll develop the same way; McCarthy’s decision to paint Mike as a generally good person with some bad tendencies is bold, believable, and imbues the story and the character with welcome depth.

Paul Giamatti, taking on Win Win‘s central performance, knows how to make a curmudgeonly figure likable in a way few actors today can. But Mike’s no misanthrope or self-loathing defeatist; in contrast to many of Giamatti’s more noteworthy roles, he’s downright cuddly, a good man and well-intentioned though unable, or reluctant, to take action on the various tasks that his station as a father, husband, business owner, and adult demand he address. Giamatti’s talents keep Mike human and sympathetic even when others turn against him for his indiscretions, and we understand and accept the character in spite of the moral lapse that provides the groundwork for the film’s plot to play out. Come awards season I very much doubt Giamatti will get a lot of recognition for his role in Win Win, which feels like a minor work in his career, but it’s an excellent performance from one of today’s most reliable and gifted actors.

The really impressive work here is done by newcomer Alex Shaffer, taking on the responsibility of making runaway teen Kyle palatable. To describe Kyle as laid back would be a huge understatement; Shaffer plays him as someone who just accepts what comes to him and doesn’t let the world get to him, a behavior that almost becomes frustrating until Shaffer’s given the opportunity to show off what’s really bubbling beneath the kid’s calm exterior. Those big moments are rare, but he capitalizes on each of them, and those explosive emotional moments mesh surprisingly well with Kyle’s amicable “whatever” attitude. I’ve no previous experience with Shaffer’s acting, but going forward I’d consider him someone to watch. Bobby Cannavale, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and Melanie Lynskey round out the cast; if there’s one criticism I might level against Win Win it’s that neither Ryan nor Tambor have much to do of import, but they make the most of their screen time. It’s the endlessly hilarious Cannavale and the doe-eyed Lynskey who get the best role of the supporting cast; Cannavale brings his usual upbeat charm to the role of Terry while Lynskey turns Kyle’s mother, Cindy, into something of a foil for Mike, someone who means well but loses sight of her scruples out of anxiety.

McCarthy hasn’t missed yet with his films, but for whatever reason Win Win seems destined to get forgotten in the shuffle of his budding career. Maybe the sheer normality of the story and the familiarity of the characters don’t resonate quite as strongly with his fan base; indeed, reading over reactions to the movie across the board (which admittedly has been largely positive), there’s a sense that Win Win reads as too “typical” for the tastes of those captivated by the stories of Finbar McBride or Tarek and Zainab. But McCarthy seems to be saying that there’s value in the stories of the boring, ordinary set, too, and in following that thread he’s crafted a stand-out picture of  the morality of the middle class, which easily rivals his previous works.

*Strictly speaking, Paul Giamatti probably knew based on past acting experience.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Win Win, 2011, dir. Thomas McCarthy

  1. Yes, I think this movie feels too “indie” to get the attention it probably deserves. I enjoyed The Visitor and like Giamatti as an actor but this will probably end up being a low-priority rental for me once it hits Netflix.

    • It’s too bad because this is just as good as McCarthy’s other films; I liked it more than The Visitor but not quite as much as I liked The Station Agent, but you can’t go wrong with his movies and frankly, Win Win has the same kind of tone and mood as both of the director’s other two movies. I think skipping out on this one is a mistake for sure– I suspect you’d probably really enjoy it.

    • Yeah, I like that it’s about America’s financial crisis without really confronting the subject directly. It’s little things like that that make McCarthy’s work so rewarding.

  2. “The Station Agent” is one of my all-time favorite films — and Richard Jenkins was so good in “The Visitor” — that I can’t wait to see “Win Win.” The McCarthy/Giamatti combo is like a gift from heaven.

    • Yeah, The Station Agent is one I want to revisit with Dinklage doing such good work in Game of Thrones. You’ll probably be just as thrilled with Win Win as I was.

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