DIRECTED BY THOMAS McCARTHY
STARRING: ALEX SHAFFER, PAUL GIAMATTI, AMY RYAN, JEFFREY TAMBOR, BOBBY CANNAVALE with MELANIE LYNSKEY and BURT YOUNG
This is my first McCarthy experience of the three films he has made. I’ve watched bits and pieces of ‘the Visitor’ when they premiered it on Television. ‘the Station Agent’ has long been on my to-do list. Both are immensely acclaimed, the man himself deemed an up-and-coming writer-director of independent films which, again, do not stick to the usual norm. One of the reasons why I long contemplated writing this review right after ‘Dan in Real Life’ (directed by Peter Hedges), an immediate sample of a film that’s as entertaining as it’s full of heart. Well, I don’t think one can put ‘Win Win’ any better than that. Hence the hesitation.
The storyline of ‘Win Win’ is fairly convoluted, but pretty clear. Which means there are dimensions to it which, however, do not serve to complicate the premise. It’s one of those films which is so intricately detailed that it turns out to be quite simple and wholesome. Do you get what I’m saying? Life as it is has facets to it, only parts of which we come to confront on different days in different ways of living it. And yet, one can put it in a few words. Or in a paragraph.
Thomas McCarthy achieves that simplicity in his film, tying all ends together, welding his joints, making them secure so as to give the viewer a smooth, uninterrupted ride. There has been a lot of work, a lot of effort gone into this film which does not show on the surface. Everything that we see is undeniably a product of concise writing with utmost care. And the film, on its part, never ceases to be funny or smart – it might not always be tongue-in-cheek cocky, but it’s smart. It’s rich with moments but not in a face-saving sort of way. After watching ‘Win Win’ you might, you will go around recollecting sequences, possibly one particular sequence, a ‘turning point’ both figuratively and literally, but then you would have loved experiencing the film as a whole as well. Your joy would not have been curtailed to the lengths of scenes or lines, for the film in itself is utterly enjoyable. There is not a dull moment. There is not a vile moment in it. There is not a moment where you wish you had it a little differently. I had no second thoughts after watching ‘Win Win.’ It’s simple, whole-hearted joy.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small-time lawyer who’s married with two kids. He goes for a jog every morning, with or without the company of best buddy Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale, less annoying than usual), and he spends evenings as a local high-school wrestling coach assisting Coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor, delightfully subtle). He values physical fitness and there is an inherent love for the sport, which doesn’t let the viewer corrupt his intentions as purely being after the money in it. Mike would not coach the kids if he didn’t get paid for it, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love what he’s doing. He reminded me of my father, who never said no to the extra money, but the thirst to get the satisfaction of having impacted upon at least one person – well I have been so used to that thirst that I was simply overjoyed when I saw it on screen, what can I say.
But then there’s a flipside. Mike’s a lawyer, right? The proverbial one. He doesn’t mind where his money comes from as long as he gets a fair bit of it. Actually, it’s not as harsh as I made it sound, but I guess you get my point? Anyway, in this case, he eyes a $1500 a month commission on serving as the guardian of Leo (Burt Young), who’s at the onset of Dementia. The man requests to be let to stay at home, Mike capitalizes on that request, takes control and puts him in an old-age home instead. It might not be as sad as you think it is, but it’s sad. The place has TV, incredible furniture, 24 hour service. But it’s not home.
Sometimes you need to get a little topsy-turvy to straighten yourself out. Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer, a jaw-dropping find) serves as motivation for that sort of inertia bust. He’s Leo’s grandson who has run away from a ‘druggie’ mother and has come to live with his granddad. Jackie Flaherty (Amy Ryan, with a startlingly likeable performance), Mike’s wife, assumes responsibility here. Reproached in the beginning by the boy’s appearance and his habits, but humbled by his story and conduct in general, she takes him into their house. Kyle becomes a Son she never had, or something close. To Mike, it’s business with a hint of emotion. The boy is a prodigious wrestler, one of uncanny skill and mental strength with a touch of ‘cool’. To Mike, he’s the dream student. A protégé. Someone he’s always dreamed of. But then, he’s not his own. There’s the boy’s mother (Melanie Lynskey, tailor-made) and there’s a price that he has to pay; people he has to disappoint. Including and especially the boy himself.
Paul Giamatti in any film instantly takes me back to ‘Sideways’. Mike and Terry are no Jack and Miles, but it’s remarkable how effortless Giamatti is in playing the guy who likes a friend to look down upon. He is superior in his being, but in a humble sort of way. “Who’s crazy?” his little daughter asks. “Me”, he responds, a dull smile on his face. Alex Shaffer is Kyle Timmons. But he isn’t. Kyle barely strings two words together in his language of ‘yeah’s and ‘okay’s and ‘sure’s. And he’s rich with his outbursts, at getting out exactly what he wants to put out there. Shaffer himself admits to being too extroverted to play Kyle. But then, that’s exactly what Kyle is. He’s who you try to be when you don’t talk for a long time that you get used to not talking. He’s an extrovert’s shot at introversion. And with that and his wrestling skills, you find it’s all that you want.
Which brings me back to my previous assertion. There’s absolutely nothing that I wanted more. ‘Win Win’ was as fulfilling as a film that I badly wanted to watch. It not only lives up to your expectations, but it pushes on the borders to make the experience bigger and more nourishing than you can ever imagine it to be. It’s one of those films where the experience outdoes its content. Like the scene in ‘Once’ where the man at the studio is brought to work by the sheer inspiring force in the band’s music. Well, ‘Win Win’ is like a movie-equivalent. It sets you upright in your chair, jumping with child-like joy. It’s exhilarating. It truly is, Win Win.