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Review: Tom McCarthy’s ‘Win Win’ Balances Heartfelt & Hilarious Small Victories

Review: Tom McCarthy’s ‘Win Win’ Balances Heartfelt & Hilarious Small Victories

The following is a reprint of our Sundance review by our correspondent James Rocchi.

After “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” actor-director Tom McCarthy returns to Sundance with “Win Win,” starring Paul Giamatti as a lawyer and high school wrestling coach who stumbles across both possible ruin and possible redemption in one selfish act. “The Station Agent” was justly acclaimed; “The Visitor” divided critics and audiences, with some finding it impressive and others finding it patronizing. To repeat an old maxim, I do not object to having my heart warmed; I object to having it microwaved, brought to a semi-warm temperature in the quickest, clumsiest way possible. McCarthy, as a director and storyteller, is interested in a fairly universal question — How is it that we might be happy and good at the same time? — and he has never balanced the heartfelt and the hilarious as well as he has here.

In quiet New Jersey, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a small-town lawyer with a dwindling practice. He’ll never be rich; “I help old people,” as he notes in one desperate outburst. He’s in trouble. And when one of Mike’s clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young) descends into early-stage dementia, Mike realizes that Leo — with a long-lost daughter who can’t be found — could mean an extra $1,500 a month. Mike asks to serve as Leo’s guardian so that Leo might stay in his own home … and then bundles Leo off to the local old- age-care home, in contravention of Leo’s wishes. Mike doesn’t keep his word. He does keep the monthly check.

All of this is foreshadowed in a ha-ha early morning exchange between Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan, who nails a born-bred-and-Bon-Jovi’d Jersey Girl) and eldest daughter Abby (Claire Foley): “Where’s daddy?” “He’s running.” “From what?” If any actor, though, was born to play the manic despair and elation form hitting rock bottom — from being, as gamblers put it, down to the felt — it is Giamatti. Mike isn’t bad, just weak — and vain, and lazy, and remarkably like us in several other ways. Mike enjoys a brief uptick in his fortunes, until complications arrive in the form of Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson, who’s left his rehabbing mom in Ohio to seek out Leo and hide. Mike and Jackie take Kyle in — “What else can we do?” as Jackie notes — where he becomes part of the family, and Kyle winds up on Mike’s wrestling team, where he’s revealed to be a champion.

While “Win Win” doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, you are at the very least in exceptional company and in the hands of an excellent driver. Giamatti and Ryan are even more excellent than usual and Shaffer (a real-life New Jersey state champion wrestler) is surprisingly effective as the confused-yet-decent Kyle. Melanie Lynskey turns in a much more interesting performance than another director might have built out of similar material, and Young — still acting, still active — is remarkable.

There are laughs in “Win Win,” large and true ones, and many of them come from Jeffery Tambor as Mike’s sad-sack assistant coach Vigman and Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s separated-and-scarred best friend Terry. (Watching Tambor and Cannavale, especially after Terry worms his way onto the coaching team, is a master class is both seamless ensemble acting and shameless scene-stealing.) And many of them must be credited to McCarthy’s writing and timing, and even more credit must be given to how McCarthy never lets a joke undermine the stakes and serious consequences on the table.

McCarthy is hardly a distinguished visual stylist — set in New Jersey’s quiet streets and clean schools,”Win Win” is less cinematically interesting than either “The Station Agent”s surreal railroad settings or “The Visitor”s bustling, busy, New York. But he conveys Kyle’s exceptional athleticism, and throws in a few remarkable shots; a straight-up camera angle in a gym tells us everything we need to know about the strong feelings and bravado of high school wrestling’s athletes, coaches and fans.

“Win Win,” released by Fox Searchlight will, by that very fact, be the biggest movie McCarthy’s had to date; fortunately, it deserves to be. There’s so much comedy in “Win Win” that you might not at first notice the pain in it — Kyle lashing out at his mother, his mother lashing out at Leo, Mike selling his soul and risking everything for $1,500 a month, Jackie’s face when she realizes what Mike’s done. And somewhere in between the wit and the wounds, Giamatti delivers a great performance, and Shaffer makes a strong debut whose combination of acting and athleticism could even be compared to Natalie Portman’s efforts for “Black Swan.” “Win Win” is, like all of McCarthy’s films, about the possibility of small victories in the face of the possibility of titanic loss, and if he leavens that with more humor this time out, rest assured, he’s not taking out the serious drama in the pursuit of broader smiles. [B+] — James Rocchi

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