Why would you want to go see a movie about a hard-luck attorney who coaches a high school wrestling team? Well, I didn’t either — until I learned it was from the same writer-director as The Station Agent and The Visitor. Win Win (2011) is another feather in Thomas McCarthy’s cap, a moving, well structured comic drama that lives up to its name.
Times are lean for Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) — his law practice is struggling, his wrestling team is losing, and he’s not quite making enough money to support his family. In a desperation move, he assumes the guardianship of one of his elderly clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), selling it as the act of a good samaritan, but basically to collect the support fees. This uncharacteristically selfish act proves troublesome when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on Leo’s doorstep. Kyle’s come to New Jersey to live with his grandfather, as his absentee, drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey) is in the wind, and he has nowhere else to go. With little choice, Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take Kyle into their family. Kyle’s laconic, controlled attitude and unexpected skill as a wrestler brings new life and energy to the troubled family — until Mom comes back into the picture.
It probably doesn’t sound like anything you want to see, right? But you should totally see Win Win, a spirited, amusingly low-key independent that’s perfectly cast, effectively structured, and intelligently funny. Giamatti is convincing and likeable, and Shaffer’s too-cool-for-school aloofness is hilarious. McCarthy — who also contributed to the story for Up — specializes in a subdued kind of “guy movie,” male-bonding stories in which older men find new energy for life through friendships with younger people. Win Win totally fits that mold, with Giamatti and Shaffer selling the relationship perfectly. The supporting cast contributes, particularly Bobby Canavale, who’s hilarious as Mike’s best friend, an unabashed Kyle fanboy. Unfortunately the female characters aren’t quite as strong, tending to be more judgemental or villainous then the men. That said, Lynskey and especially Ryan are both excellent in the most prominent roles.
Overall, it’s a great little relationship film with a rare combination of heart and laugh-out-loud humor.