True to form for writer-director Tom McCarthy (2003's "The Station Agent
"), "Win Win" is an observational comedy not about what happens, but about how. The story is not one that can be riddled down to a punchy one-sentence description, but more of a slice-of-life full of smaller conflicts and triumphs. There are very few "big" moments of drama, nobody dies, and for the most part all of the characters are either likable or at least struggling in their own way to do what they think is best. The results are naturalistic and airy, affectionate and lightly touching. What McCarthy doesn't quite nail is the follow-through; the lack of a more notable arc for central protagonist Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) gives the ending a somewhat listless feel that puts a slight damper on his journeyand the audience'sto arrive at this point.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) has begun to wake up early and jog, not only to get into shape, but as a means of dealing with his stress. He has a solid relationship with his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and two adorable young daughters, but what none of them know is how badly his law practice has fallen on hard times. In need of a new source of income, Mike convinces the court to hand over elderly client Leo Poplar (Burt Young), suffering from dementia, into his care for a tidy monthly paycheckthen promptly moves him to Oak Knoll Senior Center. It is during one of Mike's visits with Leo that he meets the man's 15-year-old grandson Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), in town visiting while his mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), is away at rehab. With nowhere to go, Kyle is welcomed into Mike's home on a temporary basis. While coaching his unenthused high school wrestling teamhis second jobMike learns that Kyle doesn't just have wrestling experience, but is an immensely gifted and disciplined athlete. Just as Kyle is settling into his new life, Cindy shows up, hoping to take her son back home and claim guardianship of her father. Kyle is sure she is doing it for the money; what he doesn't realize is that Mike's initial motives for caring for Leo weren't exactly selfless, either.
Paul Giamatti (2009's "Duplicity
") is the first and foremost reason to see "Win Win." The film opens as a singular character study of his Mike Flaherty, a man struggling to balance too many baskets at once but hesitant to let his wife know of their financial trouble, and Giamatti is fascinating to watch in the role. The actor is perfect whenever he plays end-of-his-rope, slightly shlubby everymen, bringing a simultaneous desperation, emotional truth, and humor to the lives he inhabits. If one ever manages to catch Giamatti acting rather than simply being, it could be a first in his career. In the settled, perhaps too comfortable, way he interacts with wife Jackie, in his relationship with best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), in his actions at the office as he whiles away the hours in between sparse client meetings, fixing toilets and dealing with the broken water heater in the basement, there is a lived-in quality to the early scenes that work wonderfully.
When teenager Kyle enters the frame, the picture takes a slight turn to gradually begin focusing on him rather than Mike. This is especially true of a middle section that becomes something of a sports tale, albeit an indie-minded one about a down-on-their-luck high school wrestling team and the star player whose talent gives him his biggest chance at a brighter future. Kudos to writer-director Tom McCarthy for treating this subplot in a natural light that doesn't, thankfully, boil down to a championship match. In fact, the narrative switches things up again in the final third, more or less forgetting the wrestling in order to work out Kyle's problems with his back-in-the-picture mom and the young man's feelings of betrayal when he finds out Mike was initially using his grandfather as a means of earning additional pay. Old-hat scenes that a more obvious, studio-backed effort would have includeda courtroom battle, a falling-out between Mike and Jackie, an easy solution to Mike's money woesare dodged altogether or tackled with a more honorable modicum of realism. If there is a disappointment, it is in McCarthy's latter ongoing story thread involving Mike's strained finances. When Jackie finds out about this, there is never even a discussion or suggestion that maybe she should get a job to help out. Yes, they have a toddler, but so what? People within their economic bracket don't always have the luxury of being a stay-at-home parent. That Jackie never brings the remote possibility up makes her seem a little selfish. Furthermore, the final scene's tone is treated in an upbeat manner, which is at odds with the specific situation at hand and comes off being rather bleak in the face of dishonest harmony.
Alex Shaffer makes his big-screen acting debut as the blond-mopped Kyle Timmons. He is physically well-cast and has the monotone, slightly disaffected speech patterns down pat of a 15-year-old boy. The question, then, is whether Shaffer is actually wholly portraying a fictional character or has been asked to mostly be himself. Shaffer is undoubtedly rough around the edgesthere is the suspicion that he will significantly improve if he wishes to continue on with an acting careerbut there is enough of a promise in how Shaffer still manages to hold his own to not write him off. Supporting performances, meanwhile, are memorable and without fault, with Bobby Cannavale (2010's "The Other Guys
"), as the overly dramatic, slightly needy Terry; Melanie Lynskey (2009's "Up in the Air
"), playing against-type as Kyle's harried but refreshingly unmonstrous mom Cindy, and winning newcomer Nina Arianda, as Mike's tell-it-like-it-is secretary Shelly, most standing out.
"Win Win" works best when the center-of-field is on Mike Flaherty's trials and tribulations in his work life, at home, and through the newfound drive he gets after meeting and taking in Kyle. Writer-director Tom McCarthy isn't consistently sure where he's taking his characters, but at least they arrive at their ultimate destinations in ways that go against the clichéd grain. Watching the movie is not fall-down funny so much as it is of the smirk and giggle variety, and the drama stays low-key in lieu of over-the-top soap opera histrionics. The narrative is a little all over the place even in its narrowed confines, but the laid-back feel and Paul Giamatti's potent contributions keep things humming along. A small but pleasurable film that nonetheless leaves room for improvement, "Win Win" is more like "Win Tie" on final calculation. That's not such a bad place to be.