Movie Review - Win Win

BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision


"Win Win" is a glorious film about average human beings struggling with the imperfections inherent in the human condition. As he did with "The Station Agent" (2003) and "The Visitor" (2007), Director Thomas McCarthy has painted a cinematic tapestry that shows small, decent people fighting to keep their head above water no matter how unfair the rising tide.

Here we find Hollywood's everyman, Paul Giamatti, playing Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a loving family who also is the coach of his high school wrestling team, a group of misfits who don't know the meaning of victory. But he also has a darker side, namely financial difficulties that he is hiding from his family.

A possible cure to his financial woes arrives in the form of an elderly client (Burt Young), still living at home with the early onset of Alzheimer's. Having access to his financial records, Flaherty makes the fateful decision to materially mislead the Court when he offers to become his client's guardian. Despite hating himself for it, he proceeds to sell his ethical values for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver, and the moral quandary that ensues is going to cost Flaherty dearly.

However, Flaherty's dilemma only deepens when he moves his deceived client from the home that he loves to an assisted living center. Returning back to that home to pick up some furniture, he suddenly discovers a young teenage boy with a mop of blond hair sitting on the steps. It turns out that this is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the grandson of his elderly ward, who has mysteriously surfaced for reasons that are about to change the lives of everyone involved.

Kyle arrives as a taciturn introvert who is obviously fleeing from the clutches of a mother who refuses to contact him. In many ways he is as emotionally damaged as the characters Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson played in the aforementioned "The Station Agent," only in this case he is slowly drawn from his shell by both the incredible warmth of Giamatti's caring family and the discovery that he has great wrestling skills.

As Giamatti's loving wife, Amy Ryan is simply splendid as a New Jersey girl with intelligence, spunk and an attitude. She is the glue that holds her family together, and you will experience few finer moments in a film this year as when she reluctantly takes Kyle into her home while resisting the urge to seek out his mother and literally beat "the crap out of her." As with her Oscarnominated role in Ben Affleck's surprisingly powerful "Gone Baby Gone" (2007), few actresses working today match Ms. Ryan in her ability to bring to the screen an authentic characterization of a blue-collar woman.

One of the problems with so many films today is that they tend to whitewash their characters into one dimensional heroes and villains. What is so rich about Mr. McCarthy's script is that his characters are displayed warts and all, and it is their struggle with these imperfections that make them so real.

Jeffrey Tambor does deadpan better than anyone, here appearing as the laconic assistant wrestling coach helping Giamatti. Bobby Cannavale is Giamatti's tormented best friend, possessed and angst ridden over a wife who has taken the marital home while shacking up with another man. Nina Arianda is screamingly funny as Giamatti's legal secretary, a woman who is trying to hold their struggling operation together while she continually fights the most recent hangover.

In many ways, watching a Thomas McCarthy film is the functional equivalent of having a window into your own existence. All of these characters have relationship problems, money problems, health problems, aging problems, and what we watch is their struggle to do the right thing despite the many barriers that life continually throws in their way.

What Mr. McCarthy knows is that if the bright light of day was to shine on any of us when we did the one thing in life that we were most embarrassed by, that few of us would get out of this world with our self-respect intact. All of us are a chaotic collection of wonderful attributes and profound flaws.

Sure we curse at inappropriate moments, but aren't we entitled to given the absurdity of human existence? There is a dignity to all of McCarthy's characters that makes them incredibly endearing, and you can't help but leave the theater feeling pretty damn good about being less than perfect.

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