Monday, March 21, 2011

Win Win: Getting Back Up, In the Ring and Life

Win Win
Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffery Tambor, and Melanie Lynskey
Director of Photography: Oliver Bokelberg, Editor: Tom McArdle, Production Designer: John Paino, Original Music: Lyle Workman
Rated: R for some swearing, a moment of nudity, and a little violence, mostly in the ring.

            Although I’m usually there to watch the movie, sometimes I notice odd things about the crowds I’m watching with. This was the case with Win Win, a new comedy from writer-director Tom McCarthy. While most of the audience was your run-of-the-mill old-to-middle-aged New Yorkers, there were a few kids as well. Not a large amount, but enough that I noticed. That fact might tie right into the sensibility that Mr. McCarthy has created in his films, an indie spirit with a crowd pleasing attitude. While The Station Agent and The Visitor presented complex characters who we truly cherished by the end of the film, Mr. McCarthy has created a protagonist and story so lazy in its obviousness, but succeeds on his ability to tug properly at your heart.

            The film follows the story of Mike Flagerty, played by Paul Giamatti in a role he has perfected—the lazy and neurotic shlub. A lawyer in New Jersey who helps old people, Mike explains his problem as “work, money, everything,” as if it could be really anything. Despite two gorgeous little girls and a wonderful wife (Amy Ryan, the film’s saving grace), Mike is short on cash, and sets up an elaborate legal scheme to be guardian to a rich elderly man (Burt Young) with dementia and put him in a home, collecting a $1500 check each month.

            But when the man’s grandson shows up, things get complicated. 16-year-old Kyle, played by newcomer Alex Shaffer, comes into Mike’s home sporting bleach-white hair and a few tattoos. He’s quiet and reserved, but happens to have a knack for destroying other kids on the wrestling floor, a sport that Mike coaches. From there, you can imagine, we have some laughing, learning, and loving, mixed in with a good amount of drama, and some self-realization.

            It would be wrong of me to say Win Win didn’t put a smile on my face. With its adorable cast of performers all selling a heartfelt story, it’s the kind audiences will love to eat up, an underdog story mixed in with a family drama. But that doesn’t help Win Win from feeling like its treading familiar territory. What made The Station Agent and The Visitor feel fresh besides their same paint-by-the-numbers attitude were that its characters came alive in unpredictable situations, and we saw their lives unfold in ways most films avoid. Mr. McCarthy gets his actors to spark—the man makes a career out of acting in shows like The Wire—but rarely do his characters jump off the page in the same way. This comes especially true in the film’s comedic relief—Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s talkative brother, and Jeffrey Tambour as his assistant coach.

            So here comes the dilemma: is it right to dismiss a film I hate to admit kept me entertained for two hours? I wish Win Win did more with its characters and brought them down a more unique path (it doesn’t have an entirely cliché ending for what its worth, which is to say a lot). But I feel that Mr. McCarthy, who has some autobiographical links to the film, is best when he’s working out of the comfort zone, and putting characters in situations where the next part of the road is always foggy, and anything can happen. Win Win settles into its smooth pace, and Mr. McCarthy seems fine that status quo is good enough.

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