Let’s face it: we live in an era that produces films not by standards of quality, but quantity. 2011 is no exception. We have 22 sequels and superhero pictures set to release this year. So when a subtle and delightful film like Win Win comes around, it gives you hope in Hollywood, and reminds you of the greatness of the film medium.
Tom McCarthy’s Win Win sees Paul Giamatti star as Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach. Only trying to make ends meet financially, Mike makes some ambiguous business deals that ultimately lands him a star-studded wrestler without parents. Being the considerate family they are, Mike and his wife Jackie Flaherty (Amy Ryan), take this confused teenager in.
One thing leads to the next as the addition of Kyle (Alex Shaffer), on this seemingly hopeless wrestling team, proves to be successful. The once tension-filled family gets put to rest with the transformation in personality of Kyle. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end or at least in movies, a momentary halt. One day, Kyle’s mother shows up just fresh out of drug rehab. Kyle despises her and she has merely returned into his life to pick up a long awaited paycheck from his grandfather (plot logistics that reveal to much of the story for me to explain). She makes plenty of threats, which evidently puts everything created by the Flaherty’s and Kyle, in jeopardy.
McCarthy has a real knack for developing rich and compelling characters. Similar to his past directorial efforts (The Visitor and The Station Agent), Win Win is a small, though emotionally touching character study. It’s grounded and rarely steps out of the director’s comfort zone. McCarthy has a very precise and intricate directorial style that makes all of his character human beings who are easy to relate to.
Still, none of the film’s accolades could be given without help from the slew of great performers in display here. Amy Ryan as the hard-nosed mother, Jeffrey Tambor and Terry Delfino as assistant wrestling coaches with two completely different styles, Burt Young as the grandfather who just wants to go home, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s mother who has returned purely for the money, these performers are at the top of their game. However, it’s Paul Giamatti and first time actor Alex Shaffer who give the film its gravitas. Giamatti is quite simply one of the best working actors we have in the entertainment business. Yet, it could be Alex Shaffer who gives the most impressive performance. Having never acted on screen before, he manages to give Kyle some emotional empathy. Shaffer’s performance appears to be given so effortlessly, and by the end of the movie, he is completely convincing in the role.
Albeit the film has some issues with pacing and predictability, Win Win is one of the more nuanced pictures to come around in quite some time. The masterful acting, for the most part, lets you forget about some of the pictures glaring faults. Here is a sports film that doesn’t narrow in on winning, as it is, or course, not the only thing significant in life (though some sport picture will say otherwise). Certainly, everything clicks into place a little too neatly but when you have such a solidified story full of tenderness and melancholy, you can forgive almost anything.
Win Win is a touching, and amiable drama that contains a final 45 minutes worth remembering. It is by the end, a “win win” situation.
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