Friday, March 25, 2011

Win Win

With films like The Station Agent and The Visitor, writer\director Tom McCarthy has a clear understanding of grounding human comedy and drama.  And while the premises of both films read like bad television-- the aloof dwarf obsessed with trains, or the aloof college professor aiding an illegal immigrant-- the play with such a natural rhythm and grace that's crystallized by fine writing and wise casting choices.  Never flashy, nor outlandish, McCarthy excels at crafting quiet humane situations and exchanges between regular folks.  He continues the tradition with the everyman dramedy Win Win, which while never revelatory or groundbreaking, is a pleasingly soft slice of life with characters that feel as finely etched as your next door neighbors.  While, perhaps, not quite as good as his two prior works (McCarthy is also an actor; you might remember him is such films as Michael Clayton and Syriana, and a co-writer of the Pixar triumph Up), Win Win is a film that in less competent hands would have likely been a contrived, and potentially shrill bore, and it's in his generous humanity for his characters, and his actors, that such long stretches of the film feel so warm and authentic.

Small town Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is struggling-- his practice has been whittled down to senior citizens, and their silly, arbitrary concerns, the wrestling team he coaches has never won a match, money is tight.  Right off the bat, Win Win feels like a standard issue sad sack vehicle for Giamatti, a role the fine actor can play in his sleep, but McCarthy's light touch never denounces Mike as a simple, sad schlep, but a real American man facing very real concerns.  That light touch gives Giamatti to wink and smile and open up in a way that feels fresh, marking one of his most gentle and soft performances to date.  He's got a lovely wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), two children and a nice house, as well as an old high school friend Terry, played with not a hint of subtlety by The Station Agent's Bobby Cannavale, he's the one caricature in an otherwise very real environment.

One of Mike's clients is Leo (Burt Young), an elderly man in the first stages of dementia, who wants nothing more than to live out his life on his own, in his own home.  He's got no one to take care, and after noticing a nice financial incentive comes along with becoming the lonely old mans guardian, Mike pounces.  There's a glitch of course, as in life, no one can really ever get anything for free, and that unexpected surprise comes in the form of Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) a young teen runaway, and Leo's grandson, who after running away from his broken seeks solace in Jersey.  Mike takes the troubled teen under his wing, and lo and behold, he's actually a great wrestler.  Win Win is neither particularly interested in getting into the familial mess of the young kid nor wrestling itself, instead it's an amusing collection of characters, most of whom seem completely out of place from one another, and the humanistic interaction between them.  Be it Mike's anxieties, Jackie's blunt straight-forward Jersey talk, or Kyle's reticence.  And as contrived as the plot may sound, it plays quite naturally, and boils down to circumstances that feel very ordinary.

The real gift of Win Win, beyond McCarthy's deftly textured screenplay, is the actors amassed.  Giamatti is front and center, but there's a wonderful generosity between the ensemble-- Amy Ryan can probably play this part in her sleep, but the compassion and no-nonsense sweetness shines through even while playing a variation of the standard long suffering wife role.  Plus McCarthy has the great sense to give wonderful character actors supporting roles, some perhaps with only a few scenes, but feel as nicely calibrated as the leads, including Melanie Lynesky as Kyle's mother, Jeffrey Tambor as one of the wrestling coaches, and Margo Martindale as an attorney.  For those seeking a pleasing and affectionate human dramedy; this is a 'Win Win".  B

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