At the movies: Reviewing ‘Win Win’

Because I spend so much time covering TV, and because I’m father to two young kids, I don’t get to see movies in theaters very often anymore. Some movies, though, I make the extra effort for, and “Win Win” was kind of a perfect storm to get me out of the house and into a cramped seat at the local art house theater.

Among other reasons: 1)It’s the third film by actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy, whose first two films (“The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” were both fantastic). 2)Its cast features a bunch of actors whom I find can generally do no wrong in my eyes, including Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale and (in a small but pivotal role) current “Justified” villainess Margo Martindale. 3)It’s set in New Jersey (though most of it shot on Long Island for tax reasons). 4)While the film tackles many subjects and tones, among the many genres it encompasses is the underdog sports movie, and if you don’t know what a sucker I am for those, you haven’t been reading me for too long.

So I was hyped to see “Win Win” (which my HitFix colleague Greg Ellwood really enjoyed when it played at Sundance) going in, and the movie absolutely lived up to my expectations. In some ways, it surpassed them. If you happen to be heading to the cinema sometime soon and it’s playing in your area, I highly, highly recommend it. But if you want to know a little more than that blanket endorsement, I’m going to write a bit more about the film and why I loved it – with some minimal premise-establishing spoilers (the kind you’d read in your average pre-release review, not the kind I’d put in my after-the-fact review of an episode of TV), though those of you who have seen the movie should feel free to discuss it in detail in the comments – just as soon as you slap me in the head…

So Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an elder care attorney whose life seems a never-ending joke about how nice guys finish last. His practice is failing, and the high school wrestling team he coaches in his spare time is a laughingstock. He has a wife (Ryan), two young daughters, a best friend (Cannavale) and an office-mate who works as his assistant coach (Tambor), so he starts off the film in a less isolated place than the protagonists of McCarthy’s first two films, but he’s just as stuck in neutral as they were.

It’s a recurring theme of McCarthy’s work to show a sad man’s life invigorated by the arrival of an unlikely outsider, and in “Win Win” that outsider is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the teenage grandson of one of Mike’s elderly clients (played by Burt Young, Paulie from the “Rocky” movies). Kyle comes to New Jersey looking for his grandfather and instead winds up crashing with Mike and his family… and wouldn’t you know it, but the kid turns out to be a fantastic wrestler who brings new life to Mike’s sad sack team and new passion to his stunted life?

“The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are marvelous films, but they were also very small films that entirely fit the art house aesthetic. “Win Win” is McCarthy (working with a story he co-wrote with childhood friend Joe Tiboni, an actual elder care attorney from the town in which the film is set) in more of a crowd-pleasing mode. It is consistently, wickedly funny, particularly in the interplay between Giamatti, Tambor and Cannavale (whose divorced d-bag character invites himself onto the coaching staff once Kyle promises to make the team interesting), and the wrestling sequences are simultaneously, expertly played for both laughs and adrenaline.

But McCarthy doesn’t abandon his sense of realism and character for the sake of some punchlines and fist-pumps. Though things start going very well for Mike’s team, the film never forgets the complicated, shady circumstances under which Kyle comes to live with Mike, nor the dark past that sent him searching for his grandfather. Shaffer, a real-life high school wrestling champ from New Jersey, was cast for his wrestling skills, but the kid has genuine screen presence, commanding your attention even when he’s saying and doing very little, and he more than holds his own opposite Oscar nominees Giamatti and Ryan.

On balance, it’s a much sunnier film than McCarthy’s first two, and I’ve seen some reviews that consider it the least of the three. (Ebert, for instance, opened his review with the phrase “a high-level sitcom” and later complained that it was “too neat,” though he enjoyed the film as a whole.) I definitely found it the most purely entertaining of the three, and while “most entertaining” doesn’t always translate to “best,” I don’t feel like the lighter qualities detract too much from what’s made McCarthy such a strong storyteller and such a great director of actors.

So go see it if it comes to your town (or rent/stream/download it when it comes to home video), and those of you have already seen it can discuss it in the comments in more detail. It’s what JBJ would want.