On DVD: Win Win

Actor-turned-director Thomas McCarthy came off as a natural in his first two features as a director: 2003’s “The Station Agent” and 2007’s “The Visitor.” That put a fat old earmark on latest effort “Win Win.”

All three films demonstrate an understanding of human motivation and how more often than not, things do not turn out as we plan. The conflicts in his films are extraordinary in the most down-to-earth sense of the word: unusual people and unusual circumstance can enter our lives at a moment’s notice and through handling that hardship we become better people.

“Win Win” encompasses all of these notions and into a tighter, even more Hollywood-like package than McCarthy’s previous films. Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, an attorney whose practice is struggling, so he spends late afternoons coaching a high school wrestling team. When he learns of a way he can earn money by claiming guardianship of one of his clients with dementia and placing him in an assisted living facility, he pulls the trigger despite knowing the old man (Burt Young) would prefer to live on his own.

The decision proves a real win-win — until teenager Kyle (Alex Shaffer) enters the picture. Kyle hitched a ride from Columbus to New Jersey to stay with the old man, his grandfather, after his mother (Melanie Lynskey) checked into drug rehab. Mike and his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), take Kyle in because seeing as he can’t live at the assisted living facility or alone in his grandfather’s house. Kyle, as it turns out, was also a top wrestler in the state of Ohio, and he joins the team.

Mike finds a way to make it so that once again, everyone wins, but then Kyle’s mom shows up and throws it all into turmoil, putting Mike in a bind and bringing out Kyle’s angry side.

Giamatti does some of his best work as Mike. Giamatti is most often drawn to playing unlikable characters or ones with glaring flaws and while Mike fits that bill, it’s much more understated. Mike bends the rules in one instance, an instance upon which everything that happens next is built. Of course after it all piles up, McCarthy pulls the plug and Mike’s true character is tested.

So “Win Win” doesn’t offer any surprises or truly unique insights into morality. Instead, it plays out one of the many kinds of universal human dilemmas that people face every day. Then it reminds us how we should treat others and rectify situations in which we’ve done wrong. McCarthy is just being honest with us, and the drama and the acting reflect that.

In terms of the wrestling element, one could see it as metaphor for perseverance, but its primary function in the film is to give characters Mike and Kyle an outlet. It helps Mike deal with stress and it allows Kyle to channel his hardships in a healthy way. It didn’t have to be wrestling, but wrestling was really the perfect choice.

“Win Win” feels like a film true to its title. It can get a bit slow, but it would be unfair to refer to its pseudo-remarkable nature as “being too realistic.” It strikes a nice balance of conflict, enough to stay engaging yet certainly nothing over the top or melodramatic. Considering the number of films that tip the scales one way or another in that regard, “Win Win” deserves acclaim simply for being neutral.


4/5 Stars


Win Win
Written and Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Melanie Lynskey


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