Win-Win directed and written by Thomas McCarthy
It took me an unusually long time to concoct an appropriate review for Thomas McCarthy’s latest feature film Win Win. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but the review of every draft came out sounding unnecessarily caustic. As far as specifics go, Win Win is far from a “bad film”, but it seems to traverse along so uncaringly in its resolve to be an indie drama that it’s easy to accuse it of apathy. For, inasmuch as the film succeeds (because despite its issues it has significant interest in its characters) there’s a thin line between being comfortable in your idiosyncrasies and being lethargic about your issues and I’m often unsure where McCarthy sits.
Mike Flaherty is a typical lawyer, with the typical money problems living a typical humdrum life. Excuse my overuse of the word typical. Giamati’s characterisations invites you to believe in the normalcy of his character who’s not a good or bad guy, he’s just a nice man with a nice family who ends up making a potentially dubious decision of being the ward to one ofhis clients to receive a $1500 monthly pay check. It’s his questionable liaisons with the septuagenarian Leo Poplar played by Burt Young (a.k.a. Paulie Pennino) which leads us to the crux of the story. For reasons unknown – benevolence we shall assume, Flaherty is also the assistant coach of a high school’s wrestling team. A team that’s absolutely abysmal. Poplar’s grandson Kyle (the child of a daughter from whom he’s estranged) randomly shows up one night and ends up living with Flaherty and thus the movie begins moving along, at times seemingly unsure of what it wants to tell us.
As I said, the film depends on the actors and Giamati and Ryan make for an excellent couple. Both actors have natural cadences that work in this type of film and Ryan in particular is priceless as the wife with a heart of gold. The chemistry between the two surprises me a bit at first, but the naturalness with which they approach their marriage and the issues in their family is handled nicely making it easy for them to play their characters easily and without unnecessary histrionics. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale, as friends of Flaherty, make for nice additions even if the former is underused and the latter’s character’s motivations are sometimes difficult to discern.
One of the more interesting things about Win Win is youngster Alex Shaffer who plays the troubled teen in question. This is Shaffer’s first film role and he was cast for his wrestling, but there’s a budding thespian underneath the bleached hair. He’s responsible for a significant amount of humour early in the film as his initiation monotonous disposition makes for immediate humour opposite Giamati and especially Ryan. But’s it not really smooth sailing. The film’s tone becomes more problematic when Kyle’s mother played effectively by Melanie Lynskey turns up. It turns the film form a simple pseudo-family drama to a potential awkward familial tug-of-war and even if Lynskey is lovely to watch (yet another good thirty something actor in need of better roles). As such, the film’s third acts ends up seeming especially perfunctory and rushed especially when placed next to the almost lethargic first two acts.
In the end, Win Win manages to cross the finish line with relative ease because the actors are invested in the machinations of the characters they play. Random scenes like one at a café with Giamati, Cavannale, Ryan and Clare Foley (playing the Flaherty’s young daughter) work because the relationship that the actors seem to have forged is particularly natural which is the best thing for a film like this which depends on establishing that stupor that comes after living in a life that’s become well-worn and even trite. It’s sort a calling card for McCarthy who’s made his films, thus far, focusing on tepid lives interrupted by outside forces. Win Win has its issues, but it’s amiable enough.