(2011)3.5Perry SeibertWin Win, writer/director Tom McCarthy's third feature, is yet another affectionately observed human drama sprinkled with laughs and held together by an unerring interest in actors portraying the quiet, indelible moments that define a human life. It might lack the inspiration of his previous films, but its warmhearted humanitarianism is, as always, genuine and appealing.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small-time lawyer and part-time high-school wrestling coach who needs some quick cash to keep his practice solvent. To that end, he makes the unethical choice to place his elderly client Leo (Burt Young) in a retirement home, and pocket the stipend awarded to the man's official guardian by the state -- even though the old man wants to stay in his own house. Eventually Leo's grandson, the terse, introverted Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up to visit his granddad, and, because the kid has issues with his drug-addict mother (Melanie Lynskey), he eventually moves in with the Flahertys -- much to the initial dismay of Mike's wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). As the guarded teen slowly climbs out of his shell, he also tells Mike he'd like to join the struggling wrestling squad, where his new family learns he's a gifted grappler. However, just as the family begins to enjoy a sense of peace and the team starts winning, Kyle's mother gets out of rehab and begins proceedings to take responsibility for her father and her son.
For those who enjoy the quiet, low-stakes human stories that McCarthy favors, there is much to savor in Win Win. Giamatti does everyman better than pretty much anyone else out there, and he's never afraid to let us dislike Mike's worst decisions, even if we're thoroughly sympathetic to how he got there. He's the center of a brilliant ensemble that features superb comedic support from Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as Mike's assistant coaches -- they're so good together you wish Cannavale might have shown up as a lost Bluth son on Arrested Development. But the big surprise among the actors is first-time performer Alex Shaffer. An accomplished high-school wrestler, Shaffer gives a deft, subtle performance; he finds nuances in Kyle's silences that seem like typical teenage inarticulateness early on, yet slowly reveal themselves to be a layer of the kid's self-protective shell. Shaffer's work here proves that McCarthy really is one of the preeminent actor's directors out there.
The worst that can be said of Win Win is that McCarthy fails to link this slice-of-life to grander themes. Where his previous film, The Visitor, felt like a major statement because it was about the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, this film isn't quite as compelling -- it's less likely to sit with an audience as long as that one did. Win Win harkens back to McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, though it's more polished than that excellent debut. At the same time, because he's a filmmaker whose muse draws him to the inherent flaws in all human beings, more "polish" doesn't always bring out his best work.