Sunday, March 24, 2013

Movie – Win Win (2011)

Win Win is the third movie from actor/writer/director Thomas McCarthy.  Since the 1990s he’s been paying the bills by acting, usually playing some sort of character actor supporting role.  You’d probably recognize him if you looked at his IMDB page.  About ten years ago, though, he decided to try his hand at writing and directing his own movie.  The result was The Station Agent (2003), the first film in which I ever saw Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones).  McCarthy’s second film was The Visitor (2007), which garnered lead actor Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination.  Both of these films are well worth your time.  (You can read my review of The Visitor here.)  When I found out Win Win was from the man who had done the other two movies I immediately wanted to see it.

Like his first two films McCarthy also crafted Win Win as a combination of gentle humor and drama.  There are no pies in the face, nor wrenching anguish, in his movies.  Instead they are more a reflection of real life where you get the good with the bad.  Another thing his films have in common is at least one character who is somewhat disconnected both from others and from life, who then starts to reconnect.  This even extends to the 2009 Pixar film Up, which McCarthy shared a writing credit on.

Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer struggling with money issues.  His practice has not been getting the traffic he needs, so he has been cutting corners in many areas (like trying to fix his own plumbing at his office.)  He is married to Jackie (Amy Ryan), a stay at home mom taking care of two young girls.  She is unaware of their financial situation, so she is placing even more stress on Mike to spend money on things.  Normally Mike would be able to unwind some as the volunteer coach of the local high school’s wrestling team, but they have been losing a lot lately, and his assistant coach (Jeffrey Tambor) could best be described as “inept”, so even more stress comes Mike’s way.  About the only relief in his life is his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale).

In the midst of all of this Mike is the court appointed attorney for Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly man who the state feels can no longer take care of himself because of oncoming dementia.  Leo just wants to stay in his own home.  He has a helper come in each day.  He’s got plenty of money to pay and doesn’t understand why folks just won’t leave him alone.  It’s a foregone conclusion that the state is going to declare him incompetent, and with his only relative – a daughter – not in contact with him for the last 20 years, the state will become his legal guardian.  This means they will place him in an assisted living facility (aka old folks’ home).

When Mike sees how much Leo is paying the person to come in to take care of him, a light bulb goes on over his head.  Mike is desperate for money to avoid losing everything, so he goes to court to argue that he can assume the responsibility of being Leo’s legal guardian.  This will allow Leo to stay in his home (and incidentally bring some much needed cash Mike’s way.)  Unfortunately for Leo, Mike doesn’t actually have the time to take care of him, so he lies and tells Leo that the state has ordered him into the old folk’s home. 

After Mike moves Leo out of his house, he finds a teenage boy sitting on the front steps.  It turns out this is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson.  The missing daughter is his mother.  He knew nothing about Leo’s condition; he just couldn’t live with his mother anymore and hitched a ride to where he heard his grandfather lived, hoping he could stay there.  Making too big a deal of this will get Mike in hot water for lying to the court, so he brings Kyle home to stay with him temporarily.

It turns out Kyle was a very good wrestler before he got into problems at his old school.  Another light bulb goes on over Mike’s head and he convinces Kyle to enroll in the local high school and then join the wrestling team.  Mike now has a real winner.  In return Kyle gets to stay with Mike’s family and starts making connections with people again.  For once it looks like everything is going Mike’s way.  He’s got a real “win win” situation.

Of course, things don’t stay that way.  The missing daughter/mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up, and Kyle’s emotional issues don’t just disappear overnight.  There’s also the whole bit of Mike needing to keep his arrangement of Leo a secret from everyone.

Paul Giamatti could probably do “downtrodden and stressed out” in his sleep, but that’s no reason to discount his performance in this film.  He gives another fine performance.  Tambor and Cannavale provide much of the comic relief in the movie.  Amy Ryan doesn’t get much to work with in the film, but she makes the most of it.

Alex Shaffer had never acted before.  The filmmakers needed someone who could convincingly play a teenage wrestling champion, so they went out and got a teenage wrestling champion.  Shaffer had won the New Jersey state championship the year prior to the movie being made.  As an actor he doesn’t have the greatest emotional range on screen.  Most of the time he just looks sullen, but anyone who is around teenagers a lot (or who has not yet blocked out their own teen years), will probably admit that this is a common expression on many of their faces anyway when they are dealing with adults.

Of McCarthy’s three films I would place Win Win third among the three.  This doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie; it just means that it didn’t quite live up to the first two for me.  If you want concrete “good guys” and “bad guys” then this might not be the film for you.  We see things from Mike’s perspective, so we can sympathize with him, but he also does some unethical things.  Kyle has obviously had a bad upbringing, so we can sympathize with him, but that doesn’t keep some of his actions from being unlikable.  As I said at the top, this film gives you the good with the bad, much like real life.  If this sounds interesting, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Hey Chip, thanks for all the great info. Didn't know much of anything about McCarthy (especially like the Up nugget) or Shaffer (he reminded my wife and I of a young Sean Penn).

    I would give this film a higher rating, 4, maybe 4.5. I love movies that are able to have more than one significant relationship going on at a time, and I really enjoyed all of the relationships in this movie.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks. Now that you mention it, I can see the Penn resemblance.

      I gave both The Station Agent and The Visitor four stars, and since I felt Win Win was not quite as good as those two that meant by default that its rating would be a three (I don't do half star ratings here in order to keep my recommendations simpler: 3 stars = give it a try; 4 stars = highly recommended; 5 stars = must see)

  2. Good review Chip. I didn't love this movie like some, but I'll admit that it was sweet, nice, and very realistic in the way that it presents us characters and allows the story to tell itself. Nothing flashy or crazy used here, just regular.

    1. "Nothing flashy or crazy used here, just regular."

      I agree. I feel that's a good way to describe all three of McCarthy's films.

  3. Just received a check for over $500.

    Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much you can earn by taking paid surveys from home...

    So I show them a video of myself actually getting paid $500 for doing paid surveys to set the record straight.