Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 3/18/11 (limited); 3/25/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 24, 2011

Portents of doom are everywhere in Win Win: a busted boiler with an increasingly louder clunking in the basement of the protagonist's law office, an old, barely standing tree in his front yard threatening to fall any day now, and even a clogged toilet. Writer/director Tom McCarthy makes little of them except that they are there, ready to explode, crash into, or hold up the already trying times of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an attorney in a small town in New Jersey known as much for his service to local seniors as he is for his coaching of the trying-but-failing high school wrestling team.

What McCarthy actually cares about is how the decisions these characters make, both on-screen and off, do affect their lives. There are complications, and some of them are almost as contrived as the boiler and the tree, like an impending legal battle and the machinations of a rehabilitated addict attempting to take back her son or work her way into an inheritance or maybe both. There's even the upcoming, big wrestling match that could solidify a real chance of success in the son's future, but it's the choices—not the snags—here that count.

Mike's practice is falling apart, and stress about the financial security of his family is causing him to have panic attacks with symptoms that resemble those of a heart attack. His partner at the firm and assistant coach Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) seems to be doing fine with his own clients, and his best friend since high school Terry (Bobby Cannavale) knows of some shady monetary deals that Mike wants to avoid at all costs. Taking a second job is out of the question; after all, he's a respected attorney, not a bartender.

The first, most overarching choice Mike makes involves one of his clients, an older man named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) who's in the early stages of dementia. Leo wants to stay in his home but cannot do so without a legal guardian, and his only kin, his daughter, has been out of his life for years. So Mike does what on the surface might seem a selfless act: He takes on the guardianship of Leo. Beneath that, though, is the fact that Leo has set it up to pay a stipend to his guardian, and Mike puts Leo into a nursing home and starts cashing the checks for his personal use.

It is vital that Mike is sympathetic in spite of this deceit, and Giamatti plays the dilemma correctly. This decision is a dilemma to him—not done out of wholly selfish reasons but simply to ensure in some small way that his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two daughters will be more secure money-wise than they would be otherwise.

The first hitch arrives in the form of Leo's heretofore unknown grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who has run away from his home in Ohio to stay with his grandfather after his mother entered rehab and her boyfriend turned abusive. After it becomes clear there is no one to watch the young man, Mike and Jackie decide to take him in because, as they agree, there really isn't any other choice.

There's that word again, and, of course, there are other choices the couple could make in regards to Kyle. That they give him a place to stay, feed him, enroll him in school, give him spending cash despite his protests that he has enough money, and do all of this while under financial strain already is what reveals their natures. Certainly there are advantages to putting Kyle in the local high school for Mike, since the kid is a natural at wrestling, but note the way he talks with him as a coach. There's no pressure on Mike's part to get this former star wrestler in his hometown to participate on the team; it's what Kyle wants to do. Mike just encourages him to follow that desire.

The sense of caring among these characters is genuine, and it elevates even the seemingly generic sports material (Kyle brings the team to new success and builds the confidence of a teammate who's never participated in a match, while Terry comes aboard as a second assistant coach and cannot hold back his emotions). This is particularly important when Kyle's mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) inevitably arrives to throw an expected wrench in the works of this new family dynamic. This section, in which Cindy goes from devastated (The tears do come a bit quickly) to scheming for guardianship of Leo with the help of a lawyer (Margo Martindale), is the film's most fragile, teetering on the precipice of falling into the trap of unnecessary conflict.

McCarthy, though, maintains the perspective of his characters (even Cindy, who becomes far more sympathetic than we expect), especially how Kyle and Mike react to this possible trouble (One is in an emotionally delicate situation, and the other faces serious consequences for what amounts to fraud). McCarthy's decision to focus so keenly on these characters and not the potentially destructive forces surrounding them is the most important one for Win Win.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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