Win Win is probably the most apt title for any film this year. It’s a another notch for Paul Giamatti’s ability to sniff out little known, but ultimately impactful projects. He did it with Sideways, Bernie’s Version and again here. Other knowledge of Giamatti and McCarthy’s involvement, this is one of the few films I watched without being privy to additional details.
Mike Flaherty is a lawyer down on his luck, his practice isn’t as lucrative as we assume law is. In his free time, he coaches a high school wrestling team. He anticipates further downturn when one of his clients, Leo, can’t locate his daughter to act as his guardian. If the daughter is not found, his assets will be placed under the care of the state and he will be taken to live in a home, which he doesn’t want to do. Mike decides to appoint himself as his client’s guardian, and with it, automatically comes a $1,500 cheque every month. Things start looking up until his client’s grandson shows up from nowhere to live with his grandfather. Mike is forced to live with the kid as finding his mother cannot be located. Things really start looking up when it turns out the kid is a wrestling prodigy. Win win.
And that is where I will stop with the plot. One thing I loved about this movie is the writing. Of course Giamatti is one of the best actors of our time, but I can’t say he does anything special here. Not to take anything away from the performances, they were all good. But the screenplay by McCarthy (from a story by Joe Tiboni, who he was wrestling partners with as teens, and himself) is the most impressive asset. Win Win is sadly one of the films that have fallen off the way during this awards season, but it’s a film that definitely deserves a screenplay spot. Some critics’ groups have noticed, though, and it has a couple of nominations.
From the beginning of the film, you can see little things that have been placed to either show what kind of person Mike is and/or the situation he’s in. There’s the scene with Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) in the boiler room and a few with his assistant. The film doesn’t have any unnecessary bits, everything fits right in. The dialogue is tight and funny without going overboard. The supporting actors are interesting. Terry (Bobby Cannavale) spends his days outside his ex-wife’s house ‘cause he suspects she’s being banged by the plumber. Tambor is Flaherty’s co-coach and they make for an interesting couple, especially in their interactions with the wrestling team. Though I suspect Tambor is just one of those guys who find a way to make anything seem funny.
After the regular checks, things start looking up. Little things set up the situation and show the progression. The issue with the tree, the boiler and the moment Mike calls his wife about the insurance almost look like they’re just there to fill out the story but they do a lot in revealing where we’re at in the story. One thing that I think might go unnoticed because it’s not too glorified, are the fight scenes. They are very well choreographed, you can tell at the points where there are no cuts especially.
Another thing I liked about the film is the genesis of the characters. They never really change, it’s just their situations that do. It would probably have been easier to write Leo’s grandson, Kyle, as a troublesome kid and have him transform as his stay with the Flahertys is extended, or make Mike a nasty, selfish guy and have him see the ‘light’ by the end. But the film instead of transforming characters, just puts everything in perspective, in a way Mike hadn’t properly anticipated before, and maybe the audience, too. It was all right there in front of us, not even tucked away, it’s very obvious actually. Writers try to keep audiences engrossed by turning the tables. Here, nothing changes but it’s still very interesting and believable.
This is probably the most righteous film of 2011, by the end it’s about values. You don’t see films with a moral at the end much nowadays. And that it does while still maintaining the entertainment aesthetics required in a film. To tie with that, I noticed that the writer/director shared a name with cast member from The Wire (as seen in the end credits of the fourth season). Turns out, it was the same guy and he played, Scott, a character who was caught between choosing to do the right/wrong thing in order to survive at his job, which is somewhat the situation Mike faces on Win Win.
McCarthy has directed all but one of the films he has written (Pixar’s UP). All of those films have more than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. The last one, The Visitor, brought a lot of attention to Richard Jenkins, even at the Oscars but the film itself got more attention at festivals and industry group award shows. His first film, The Station Agent, gave Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson a lot of awards for their performances and McCarthy a few for writing and directing. This probably means McCarthy is one of the best writer/directors around but his work is still fairly low key. Hope Win Win draws interest to his other films and to his next. And wouldn’t it be cool if a film called Win Win actually won something.