Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Win Win

By Pamela Zoslov

In his excellent films The Station Agent, the Visitor and Up (for which he wrote the story), director, actor and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy displayed a flair for the finely detailed character study of a loner whose life is changed by the unexpected appearance of an outsider. McCarthy applies the theme to the story of a family man in Win Win, an enjoyable, if imperfect small comedy set in McCarthy’s native New Jersey.

The story centers on Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an attorney with a struggling practice and a family he’s having trouble supporting. His practice focuses on helping the elderly, and when he learns that his kind but increasingly confused client Leo (Burt Young) needs a legal guardian -- a post that pays a $1,500 monthly commission – Mike has himself appointed. Though he tells the court he’ll respect Leo’s wish to stay in his own house, he stashes the old man in a home for the aged and pockets the extra cash.

Things get complicated when Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a taciturn teenager with bleached-blond hair, shows up at his grandfather Leo’s doorstep. Mike and his wife, Jackie (the superb Amy Ryan, of Gone Baby Gone) take in the boy, initially labeled “Eminem” by the wary Jackie, integrate him into their family and enroll him in high school. Mike, who along with his CPA officemate Vigo (Jeffrey Tambor) moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, discover that in his native Ohio, Kyle was a championship wrestler (shades of The Blind Side or, in this case, The Blond Side; Shaffer is, in real life, a state champion high school wrestler). Kyle helps the foundering team win matches, and begins warming to life with the Flahertys, until his abusive mom (Melanie Lynskey) appears, fresh out of rehab and seeking her estranged son and father (or more precisely, her father’s money). Her return exposes Mike’s subterfuge, angering the unsuspecting Jackie and enraging Kyle, who had grown to trust him.

The movie suffers a little from “writer-director syndrome,” whereby director Thomas McCarthy is too faithful to the words of writer Thomas McCarthy, and fails to rein in his excesses. The movie is heavy on plot, but is never quite certain whether it’s a domestic comedy, a drama or a high-school sports movie. It also devotes a lot of screen time to characters of only marginal relevance, such as Mike’s friend Terry, though he’s played so vividly by Bobby Canaveral that he’s not unwelcome. A number of story elements strain credulity: Mike’s fraud upon the court and breach of duty seem to carry no major consequences (attention, New Jersey bar association), and Kyle’s violent behavior suggest more serious problems than a change of venue could resolve.

But the movie’s plot is not the main attraction of this earnest, well made film. McCarthy etches the characters with finely observed detail: Mike, under stress, habitually buying a pack of cigarettes, extracting one and tossing the rest of the pack away; Jackie, explaining to Kyle her “Jersey Girl” devotion to Jon Bon Jovi, down to her proudly displayed “JBJ” ankle tattoo; Kyle, quietly encouraging an awkward teammate to compete in a match. Giamatti is wonderfully naturalistic, far more persuasive as this beleaguered character than he was in the misbegotten Barney’s Version. Mike is misguided but essentially well-meaning -- much like this film, which, though flawed, has a lot to offer.

[Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.]

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