Movie Review: WIN WIN (2011) Directed by Thomas McCarthy

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Movie Reviews

Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, Burt Young

Review by Mark Engberg


Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star athlete through some questionable business dealings while trying to support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday, the boy’s mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything.

Release Date: 18 March 2011


Mike Flaherty is a struggling attorney and part-time wrestling coach, who is forced to become the caretaker for Leo, one of his elderly clients suffering from dementia. His role becomes further complicated by the sudden arrival of Kyle, Leo’s runaway grandson and Mike’s inevitable wrestling prodigy.

Refreshingly unpredictable and honestly engrossing, Thomas McCarthy’s family dramedy “Win Win” is an exhilarating character story with an intelligent script handled properly by a remarkable cast, namely Paul Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer.

It is a pleasure to watch Paul Giamatti perform anyone. Even though he is an accomplished character actor capable of vastly different backgrounds, he manages to infuse each of these roles with vivid and unmistakable personas of love and suffering. One look into Mike Flaherty’s determined eyes can tell you that Giamatti has embraced this character to a level of core understanding.

Like his much revered portrayal of John Adams’ humanistic side, his personification of Mike’s genuine eagerness to help those around him is a reminder to us that there are some noble men running around out there who are worth knowing. And much like his memorable performance of Miles in “Sideways” and his unquestionable hatred of Merlot wine, Mike is also a boldly passionate man struggling with all of his dwindling power to keep things normal, despite complicated chains of events that keep his life anything but dull.

With two kids, a snappy wife from New Jersey, and two completely unrelated professions, Mike’s life is already a workaholic’s fantasy. The problem is that he is not making enough money. Business is down at the law office and his moonlighting job as the high school wrestling coach isn’t winning the right kind of bread.

To make matters worse, he is not the kind of husband who confides his financial anxieties with his wife, Jackie (the brilliant Amy Ryan, so trashy in “Gone Baby Gone”, so righteously conservative here). No wonder he’s having heart attack scares within the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

But since he is a lawyer, he knows how to sidestep certain features of the law. So, in order to retain a modest commission from the estate of Joe (Burt Young), a wealthy client suffering from senior dementia, he agrees to become his primary caretaker. He isn’t dishonest with Jackie about his role in this endeavor, but he isn’t completely truthful with her either. After all, if he tells her about the money, he’ll have to tell her the law practice is in ruins too.

This may sound like the nuts and bolts of the central plot, but it’s only part of the wiring. The storyline gets much more complicated when Leo’s runaway grandson, Kyle, shows up on his abandoned door. Alex Shaffer may not have ever acted in a film or TV before, but his performance of the almost too collected and conflicted teenager Kyle is the stuff that MTV executives dream about when they consider nominees for Breakthrough Performance.

The only problem is that Shaffer didn’t have to break through any exterior. This is his first role. In fact, he was on his way to a successful wrestling career until he fractured his lower vertebrae. Before then, he won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship in 2010 at the age of 17.

His personal skill and natural ability in this sport are obvious when Kyle takes an earnest interest in Mike’s wrestling team. But Shaffer not only succeeds in giving Kyle an admirable persona of athleticism. His performance here is sullen, dark, and yet seemingly friendly. He is impossibly mellow despite his life of reckless endangerment.

And it is through his regular banter with Mike that we discover there are blatant similarities between these men. It is hard to consider Kyle as anyone younger than a man. They both have tremendous life battles that are complicated by their own morals and principles.

Thomas McCarthy’s script is immensely fresh and inspirational. This isn’t exactly a sports picture where the ending is resolved by a climactic wrestling tournament. The pulse that beats within “Win Win” is fueled by thicker blood than that. So that we can engage with these characters, McCarthy blends inner conflict between right and wrong, hatred of one’s own family, allegiance to friendship and the responsibility of mentorship into an entertaining concoction that actually resembles life.

With a script this good, it is pure enjoyment to watch this impressive cast, young and old alike, handle and conquer this material with flawless representation. McCarthy’s characters achieve something not very common in family comedies today: the ability to be emotionally engaging while still being funny.


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