Who would have thought that a story about a law attorney who volunteers as a high school wrestling coach would turn out to be one of the most uplifting and heartfelt films of the year? That’s the case with Win Win, a film that focuses on wrestling with one’s conscience as much as it does the sport itself.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, an elder law attorney whose small-town practice — and livelihood — is struggling to stay afloat. Add on the fact that the high school wrestling team he coaches for voluntarily can’t even win a single match and one may understand why Mike finds his stress level reaching new highs with no sign of relief in sight.
That is until he realizes that he can make a bit of extra money on the side ($1,500 in fact) by becoming the lawful guardian of one of his clients, Leo Poplar, and sticking him in a nearby retirement home. The plan, while unethical, seems rather harmless until Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up with hopes of living with his grandfather. With nowhere else for the boy to go, Mike — being both good at heart, while also feeling guilty and responsible for what he did to Leo — offers to let Kyle stay in his basement until they can get in touch with his mother.
It doesn’t take long for Mike to learn that Kyle, who oozes with a confidence Flaherty can’t even dream of, is a former high school wrestling champion. Hoping to help get the boy on the right path (while also seeing the potential boost this could be for his squad) Mike enlists Kyle into the high school and finds him a place on the wrestling team. But when Kyle’s estranged mother shows up fresh out of rehab, the house of cards that Mike has built and placed his new lease on life upon seems destined to come tumbling down — taking everything he knows and loves along with it.
Win Win is the third film by writer/director Thomas McCarthy and his home-run streak continues as he knocks this one out of the park. The characters he’s created here are so layered and interesting (as average Joe as they may be) that we can’t help but hope they succeed. Especially now, with the economy the way it is it’s easy to sympathize for Mike even though we know, and he knows, that what he’s doing is both illegal and immoral. That’s not to say these actions are condoned but more of an acknowledgement to how well these characters were written and portrayed.
Giamatti is no stranger to playing sympathetic sad sack characters and this is one of his most earnest, believable roles to date. From the first moment we meet Mike on the jogging trail, so stressed that he can barely walk let alone jog, we recognize that he’s a person with the world on his shoulders and we believe it. The delivery of just how guilty Mike always feels as he builds this house of lies for the greater good while trying to act as though everything is okay to those around him is superb. Giamatti delivers a performance that acts as the foundation for the film and gives his stellar supporting cast sturdy ground to walk on.
Shaffer was chosen for the role of Kyle based on his wrestling ability and had never done any acting previously, and yet he plays the role with the exact confidence the character exudes in the film. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a natural, his portrayal of this young man going through such an emotionally conflicting time in his life is nothing short of perfect. It’s almost as though his lack of acting training allows him to be just what Kyle is supposed to be, a normal teenager just trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs.
The rest of the cast includes Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife Jackie, Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend Terry, Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s assistant coach and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s mom. There’s no weak link to be found in this group though special mention has to go to Burt Young, who’s best known as Paulie from the Rocky films. Young steals every scene he’s in as Leo, the client that Mike takes advantage of due to his deteriorating mental condition. It’s a wonderful performance that, while minor, will surely go down as one of the actor’s best.
Win Win is a film many likely haven’t heard of even though it did perform strongly at the box-office earlier this year. It’s a touching, inspirational film that’s both filled with laughs and filled with heart, so much so that it will pin you to your seat from beginning to end.
The film is showcased in 1.85:1 Widescreen format and looks great. The colours are sharp, the dull outdoor scenes reflect just that and the lines are crisp. There won’t be any distractions when it comes to audio either, as the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio comes through loud and clear. There are no issues with the dialogue or music that accompanies it. Overall a solid transfer for the film all around.
The special features are about as deep as one may expect for a smaller film such as this, though I was surprised at the lack of commentary by at least McCarthy. What we are given is as follows:
Deleted Scenes – There are two deleted scenes and both would have thrown off the pacing of the film for an attempt at laughs that likely would have fallen flat or were unnecessary.
Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni discuss Win Win – This is a featurette that runs at just over eight minutes in length and is pretty much what one may have learned from a condensed commentary track. The two talk about writing the film, and how McCarthy used Tiboni as a muse for Mike Flaherty, and how it was helpful that any time he ran into a wall writing it was almost as though he could call up Flaherty himself and find the answer.
David Thompson at Sundance 2011 – This featurette is just over two minutes in length and sees Thompson (who played Stemler, one of the weaker kids on the wrestling team) at the film festival. It’s a quick bit where Thompson showcases his ability to throw out some pretty funny jokes off the cuff and is definitely worth watching.
In Conversation with Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti at Sundance 2011 – Another two and a half minute featurette that plays more like an ad for the film than it does an extra. Here Giamatti and McCarthy just speak about the film in general.
Family – Yet another two and a half minute ad featurette for the film that speaks with the cast and crew about the family values found with the film.
Finally there’s the theatrical trailer, as well as the music video “Think You Can Wait” by The National.
Win Win is an uplifting, funny film that hits all the right marks and definitely shouldn’t be missed. The performances by all involved are top notch and it shows in the engaging story that McCarthy has written.
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents Win Win. Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey. Running time: 106 minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: August 30, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.