“He’s running,” Mom answers.
“From what?” the little girl wants to know.
In the case of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the answer
might be “himself.” As writer-director Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win” opens, Mike, a
volunteer high school wrestling coach, is in the same position as many of us
these days: pinned down by an overloaded schedule and an undernourished bank
account. The movie begins with a foreboding shot of a leaded-glass angel
decoration falling from a window; Mike is about to take an unexpected tumble of
McCarthy’s first two directorial efforts, “The Station
Agent” and “The Visitor,” are stories about people from different walks of life
meeting up through unexpected circumstances and learning to deal with their
problems by seeing the world from a new perspective. (You can see a similar
theme in McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Pixar’s “Up” as well.) In
Mike’s case, finding the way through his anxiety — he’s started to suffer panic
attacks — involves making connections with two men of different generations:
Leo (Burt Young), a septuagenarian client whose mind is fading, and Kyle (Alex
Shaffer), Leo’s teenage grandson, whose physical strength and prowess on the
wrestling mat is exactly what Mike’s failing team needs.
To dismiss “Win Win” as a sports movie is to sell it short.
McCarthy and co-writer Joe Tiboni are even more intrigued by the characters’
internal struggles than they are with whether or not the New Providence High
School Pioneers make it to the championships. For Mike, it’s a question of
whether he can justify collecting a $1,500 check for Leo’s care after he’s
hustled Leo into a retirement home. Despite the peroxide-blond hair and
numerous tattoos that give Kyle the appearance of being a tough guy, he is
struggling with an amoral, bitter mother (Melanie Lynskey) who has temporarily
landed in drug rehab, even though that seems to be merely a pit stop on her
road to ruin.
Yet “Win Win” is remarkably funny and warm-hearted for a
movie with so many emotionally loaded issues on its mind. McCarthy has always
championed seemingly unlikely leading men with depth and dimension — Peter
Dinklage in “Station,” Richard Jenkins in “Visitor” — and he’s found a goldmine
in Giamatti, who knows precisely how to bring out the comic edge in his natural
intensity. There’s a kind of barely suppressed frustration that seems to curl
around Giamatti’s every sentence like an invisible serpent; it’s humorous, but
it’s also utterly believable, too. From the first scene to the last, Giamatti
never fails to hit that perfect mark between desperation and determination.
Shaffer, a student athlete with no previous professional
acting experience, gives a marvelously effective, understated performance that
skillfully avoids the standard angst-driven “troubled teen” signifiers.
But even more impressively, “Win Win” doesn’t surround these
strong central figures with flimsy, predictable personalities. McCarthy is an
actor himself (you’ve seen him as the unscrupulous journalist in HBO’s “The
Wire” and as Julia Roberts’ colleague in “Duplicity”) and he loves giving
performers the chance to explore and expand upon the roles he’s created for
There’s a delightful friction between Bobby Canavale and
Jeffrey Tambor, playing Mike’s competitive assistant coaches. As Mike’s wife,
Jackie, Amy Ryan packs considerable guts and gusto into each moment, drawing a
vibrant picture of a proud “Jersey girl” with a Jon Bon Jovi tattoo on her
ankle and an equally indelible commitment to telling the truth. While Lynskey’s
avaricious Cindy may be the closest thing the film has to a villain, Lynskey
doesn’t settle for merely showing us the woman’s scheming and emotional
manipulation. She provides a strong sense of alienation from her cold father
and a gnawing desire to reconnect with Kyle, feelings she’s tried to bottle up
inside a well-rehearsed carefree attitude and the tight, semi-shabby clothes
that she thinks make her a hip mom. Cindy is not mean merely for the purpose of
moving the story along — McCarthy and Tiboni realize even supposedly “bad
people” can have complex, tangled histories.
“I didn’t think it would get so complicated,” Mike says as
the various choices he’s made begin to add up. But life is almost always
trickier and more uncertain than we expect it to be, a truth reflected in the
comedy and pathos that make “Win Win” so winning.