Even those with an aversion to upbeat, sports-themed feel-good dramas are bound to be seduced by the wrestling indie Win Win.
For one thing, the film comes accessorized with shaggy art-house underdog Paul Giamatti, and his soothing purr of a voice, lovably neurotic ticks and pleasing regular-guy quality. And Win Win bears additional gifts too, in its vision of American life rarely treated in mainstream films.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty: husband, wrestling coach, lawyer and beloved mensch in his small Jersey town. He’s a guy oozing decency and good intentions. In any other film, those things would add up to make him an exemplar of success. But director Thomas McCarthy (of the similarly slow-burn The Visitor and The Station Agent) is committed to all the worm-hole realism of ordinary life. And so in America circa 2011, even an independent law practice and loving wife/family are no guarantee of happiness: Mike’s office boiler is about to conk-out and the clients are not exactly beating down his door. Also ground-hugging panic attacks begin to interrupt his jogging.
Finding himself in dire economic straits, Mike decides to enhance his monthly income by serving as the legal guardian of an elderly client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), with a deadbeat daughter (Melanie Lynskey) in rehab—a definite overstepping of his professional bounds with nasty, self-serving greed to boot.
It’s a slightly slippery move by a stand-up guy, a moral brain-override brought on by desperate circumstances. Win Win is interested in how a basically decent man can make a decision that proves potentially ruinous, especially once Poplar’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on his doorstep asking questions about Leo’s new nursing home accommodations.
Kyle is from all appearances a magnificent screw-up: a smoker, car thief, disengaged kid with a head of bleached blonde hair more Gummo than Kurt Cobain. Mike and his Jersey-tough, no-nonsense wife Jackie (a winning Amy Ryan) take Kyle in until his mother can be busted out of rehab. And despite the juvenile delinquent drag, Kyle reveals himself to be a stand-up kid devoted to his surly grandfather. He also is secretly an exceptionally gifted wrestler. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Mike and his fellow wrestling coach and office mate Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) go into attack mode, enrolling Kyle in the local high school and suiting him up to take their team of easily pinned misfits to the championship.
There is a shambling, lo-fi sweetness to Win Win. Less a story about some jock epiphany, Win Win, like McCarthy’s other films, is more about human connection. It’s about the kinds of families united not by blood but by love. It’s a jaw-droppingly simple, sweet idea.
And it’s the perfect remedy for a brash, bellowing world in which such small, earnest endearments are easily overlooked.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
With Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Melanie Lynskey, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young