Win Win (***)


A good movie that never quite elevates itself up into the upper echelons that it obviously wants to reside in, Win Win is a light dramedy that lacks the extra ingredient.  Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has made his most satisfying feature yet in my eyes (but keep in mind, I’m lukewarm on his debut The Station Agent and didn’t much care for his last film The Visitor), but it just feels like a work in progress.

McCarthy continues to get very strong acting in his flicks, led this time by Paul Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer, but he seems to settle for making a good movie when there’s a great one somewhere to be found.  It’s not as heavy as his last films, but it still wants to have something to say.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel as though it said it in any relevant way.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a struggling attorney by day, and the wrestling coach of a crappy high school team at night.  When, in a desperate attempt to increase his cash flow, he becomes the legal guardian of an elderly client (Burt Young), he stumbles upon the gentleman’s grandson Kyle (Shaffer).  He’s on the run from his addict mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), and Mike brings him home, where he and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) treat him as their own.  It turns out, however, that Kyle is a superstar wrestler, and the team suddenly doesn’t overtly suck anymore.  What seems like a win-win (get it?) situation for Mike turns sour when Cindy comes looking for her father’s money, and to a lesser degree her son.  Now, with his shady dealing threatened, as well as his newfound love for the kid, Mike will have to decide just how much he’s willing to lose in order to stand up for what’s right for Kyle and his grandfather.

The strong point of the film is the acting.  Paul Giamatti continues to do excellent work, again playing a small man, but somewhat less of a loser than normal.  He’s a good guy caught up in money trouble, and he plays it as such.  His chemistry is good with his co-stars, and while it’s not on the level of his work last year in Barney’s Version, it’s still one of the best performances of the first quarter of 2011.  I wouldn’t bet on the Academy noticing Giamatti for his work here, but stranger things have happened.  Doing great work as well is Alex Shaffer in his debut role.  He captures the awkwardness of your teenage years while not making him a caricature in the least.

Shaffer makes the role his own.  He’s got a future ahead of him in the business if he so desires.  The supporting roles are all good as well, notably the women.  Lynskey and Ryan take stock characters and make them slightly more complex than you’d expect.  Young is somewhat wasted, but it’s always a pleasure to see him on screen.  There’s also small roles for Jeffrey Tambor and Margo Martindale, but the supporting highlight is Bobby Canavale as Mike’s friend Terry.  Canavale is a veteran of McCarthy films, and steals a number of scenes that he’s in.  The performance is goofier than the film perhaps needs, but it was a nice change of pace from the mild moodiness that some of the flick has.

McCarthy is a solid director, but nothing special.  He still needs to work on his pacing and cut his films down a bit in terms of length, but behind the camera there’s nothing to complain about.  What let me down a bit here was the script he wrote (with story credit to Joe Tiboni).  The characters are rich and well defined for the most part, and the film is almost novelistic in its approach to them, but the story itself is nothing special.  Much of it feels like filler and things we’ve seen before in other (and better) movies.  Trust me, the flick is far from bad, but I’m not on the bandwagon with McCarthy’s work yet, and while this is a step in the right direction for me, it still left me a bit high and dry.

Win Win is an enjoyable piece of light indie cinema, but don’t expect too much more than that.  I did, and it let me down.  If you put your expectations slightly in check and just go to enjoy the performances, you should have a good time.  I’d expect fans of McCarthy’s prior works to like this movie more than I did, but for me, it just wasn’t a complete win-win endeavor.