It’s easy to know the difference between right and wrong but it’s tough to actually act upon. This is what makes good cinema interesting, dealing with the grey area most people live in. Nothing is so clear-cut and black and white. Do you give a kid back to his just out of rehab mother or do you keep the kid in a good environment where he can thrive? In the new film from writer/director (and actor) Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent and The Visitor) explores these themes in something unassuming, a comedy.
Win Win follows the story of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an attorney with a failing practice, a husband and father of two and a high school wrestling coach. Interestingly, he plays these roles with the same morality and nuance that you might actually find in real life. There’s nothing showy about Giamatti’s performance or character, which makes it great. Coming close to losing his practice and struggling to provide for his family, Mike comes by an interesting dilemma, become the guardian of one of his elderly clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young) battling dementia. Doing the right thing isn’t so easy when you’re about to lose your livelihood.
After becoming Leo’s legal guardian, Mike puts him in a retirement home and collects a monthly $1,500 from Leo’s estate. The morality doesn’t come from this action but in the reaction and the events that happen soon after. Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer, this was his first role) pays him a visit. Kyle is a runaway. Hoping to stay with Leo, Mike reluctantly takes him in.
This is the third film from Tom McCarthy and it delivers the perfect amount of heart, sweetness and laughs. Win Win is extremely well directed, balancing the many story lines and characters on a tightrope of comedy isn’t easy to do but through McCarthy’s eye, it certainly appears easy. Most films fail with bogging the story down with characters and too much story but Win Win succeeds. Practically every performance and character moment in this film is memorable.
From Jeffery Tambor’s Stephen Vigman, Mike’s assistant coach to Amy Ryan’s Jackie Flaherty, Mike’s wife, but the performance that shines is Alex Shaffer as Kyle, the centerpiece of the film. Shaffer gives a wonderful performance, injecting heart and a certain likeability you can root for. When Kyle is introduced in the film you can take him at face value, a 16 year-old punk runaway. Kyle smokes and gets into trouble and would easily be seen as an annoyance but as the movie progresses those constructs go away. As we, the audience, witness this transformation, we are mesmerized by Kyle’s talent and work ethic.
I’m afraid this film will not be taken seriously as a showcase of direction and writing. It would be easy to dismiss this movie because it is a comedy, and a pretty broad one at that, but I feel the direction and writing is just so top notch and tight. Almost every element in this film works and works extremely well. This is something we might see in a Preston Struges or Frank Capra film, a movie full of memorable characters, stylized dialogue and situations that challenge the character’s (and audience’s) morality and motivations. Please don’t overlook this film. Win Win is a win!