‘Win Win,’ Giamatti come out on top
In its charming and self-effacing way, “Win Win’’ is the most radical movie yet from writer-director Tom McCarthy, and it may be one of the more daring movies to be recently released in America. McCarthy’s earlier films have come with offbeat hooks: the dwarf hero of “The Station Agent,’’ the Afro-Cuban drumming that sets Richard Jenkins free in “The Visitor.’’ “Win Win,’’ by contrast, is confident enough to simply go with the exotica of average middle-class Americans who are well-intentioned, flawed, and dog-paddling like crazy to keep their heads above water. There’s nothing at all unusual about them, and that’s unusual.
We first see Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) as he’s wheezing through a morning jog. Back home, his somber young daughter (Clare Foley) asks her mother where Daddy is. “He’s running,’’ comes the reply. “From what?’’ Just so. A small-town lawyer with an office boiler and a practice that are about to implode, Mike is the post-economic-meltdown mensch par excellence. He’s you and me on a Monday morning, hoping to hold it together long enough to pay the bills.
Because he’s a mensch, Mike’s practice is mostly in eldercare, helping retired folks hold on to their homes. Because he’s quietly terrified he can’t afford his life anymore, he cuts a crucial corner, naming himself legal guardian to a client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), moving the old man into a very nice facility, and pocketing $1,500 a month. It’s a wrong move and he knows it; Giamatti gives the character the stricken expression of a good guy who has swallowed a bad clam.
Because he’s a mensch, too, Mike coaches high school wrestling along with his law partner (played by Jeffrey Tambor with an even sourer puss than the hero). The boys are terrible, but it doesn’t much matter. The small and wonderful complications of “Win Win’’ start when Leo’s estranged teenaged grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up on Mike’s doorstep, in flight from a deadbeat mother (Melanie Lynskey). Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan) takes one look at this sullen kid with his dyed blond hair, calls him Eminem, and threatens to lock him in the basement.
But she’s a Jersey girl, and the bond that very slowly grows between this fierce mother hen and the lost chick is one of the things in “Win Win’’ that feels real and right. I called this movie radical: Few directors would send Jackie and Kyle to the supermarket for no good narrative reason other than to just watch the two together, her easygoing concern bumping up against his marble-mouthed decency. Shaffer is a discovery, a kid who doesn’t say much, doesn’t posture, yet holds the screen with the self-respect Kyle knows he deserves.
McCarthy, for his part, has the knack of telling stories without overplaying his hand. Good things happen to the characters — Kyle turns out to have a few wrestling skills in his back pocket — but we hold our breaths because we know the bad things are out there waiting to pounce, and some of them are of our own making.
Bobby Cannavale — the lunchwagon guy in “Station Agent’’ — provides blissfully hilarious comic relief as Mike’s friend Terry, a divorced stockbroker who leaps at the chance to relive his high school glory days. One of the reasons the character’s so funny, though, is that his life’s an utter shambles. Terry parks obsessively outside the McMansion he no longer shares with his wife, staring at it as if he could will himself back to 2006.
McCarthy, who’s shooting in his own childhood home of New Providence, N.J., isn’t a visual show-off. He writes flesh-and-blood people, plonks the camera down, and waits for the actors to bring them to life. The role isn’t a big stretch for Giamatti, yet he gives one of his fullest performances, digging deep into Mike’s kindness, weaknesses, frustration. (It’s a much richer job of acting than the superficially more ambitious “Barney’s Version.’’) As his wife, Ryan matches him stride for stride; Jackie really is Mike’s better half, secret Bon Jovi tattoo and all. Among others things, “Win Win’’ makes “The Blind Side,’’ with its vaguely similar plot line, look like a Hollywood con job in comparison.
The movie, in the end, is all about its title — the way our culture hectors us to come out on top, the panic we feel when we can’t keep up, the ethics we bend to stay in the game. And it’s about the long game, too, and the other people on the field. Things break, says “Win Win,’’ and you can’t pick them up by yourself. It’s a message we’re sold in various ham-fisted ways from TV shows and ads and greeting cards and other movies. Rarely is it invested with as much shaggy, hard-won grace as here. Maybe Mike does get off a little easy at the end. On the other hand, maybe we’ve earned it.