Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy (screenplay)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and Melanie Lynskey
Tom McCarthy’s Win Win reminds you that even a genre labeled “independent” can succumb to endless cliches. This is not because it is predictable, but because you are lead to believe that it will be from the beginning.
Armed with a mordant wit (what successful indie comedy filmmaker isn’t?) and a sly sense for what a movie with Paul Giamatti is supposed to be like, McCarthy dismantles the sports genre and the midlife crisis movie from the inside out. We follow Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) a down-on-his luck New Jersey lawyer with a tough-but-loving wife (Amy Ryan, who else?) and two children.
With an acoustic guitar accompaniment familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple mainstream indie films, McCarthy tracks Mike through the initial scenes that set him up as a sympathetic character. Then the character does the unthinkable: he becomes unsympathetic. Mike agrees to become the legal guardian of his client Leo (Burt Young) purely for the paycheck. He says he’ll keep him in his home, but ships him to a nursing home in the very next scene.
Part of the pleasure of Win Win is that it deliberately makes you grapple with your sympathy for Mike, and Paul Giamatti balances that perfectly. From the nursing home scene on, you question everything he does that appears to be nice. Is he just doing it for personal gain like another lawyer I know played by Glenn Close?
This question is raised most prominently when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up at his grandpa’s doorstep with nowhere to go. He’s fled his abusive stepdad while his mom (Melanie Lynskey) is in rehab, but he isn’t whiney or even emotional at all. Shaffer plays him as a husk, slowing letting emotion build as we and the Flaherty’s spend more time with him.
Though McCarthy chooses to mostly subvert indie conventions, he also gives us a sports movie here too. Mike is also a wrestling coach, and it’s something he actually seems to enjoy more than the money. When he chews his losing team out for not paying attention during practice, there is real fire in his eyes. We see that fire mixed with a little mischief when he discovers that Kyle can wrestle exceptionally well.
Kyle’s pulse never seams to rise, but he is a precise, effective wrestler. Mike starts being more actively involved with his life mostly because he finally has a winner on his team. In the process, the movie shows us how people hide their selfishness behind good intentions.
It is rather merciless of American society in that regard, but McCarthy also has a deep sympathy for the humanity at the heart of all his characters. Mike goes to legal war with Kyle’s mom Cindy when she shows up. She is motivated to become her dad’s ward purely by his inheritance money, but she actually seems desperate to make things right with her son.
Despite their uneven screen time, Mike and Cindy are two sides of the same coin. Both pine after the same two people for various self-motivated reasons, and they both learn a thing or two in the process. McCarthy, who also wrote the screenplay, offers an ending that is satisfying only if you weren’t expecting “The Big Match.” The little wrestling he does show is so comically amateur that it could only be intentional jabs at the sports genre.
McCarthy is deceptive in Win Win much like the director who his main character was named after. Robert Flaherty was one of the first documentary filmmakers, who created a mostly staged but still fascinating movie called Nanook of the North in 1922. He condescendingly shows us the Eskimo people as “Noble Savages” by having them revert to harpooning when they were well past that as well as building sets for them so he could get pretty shots. Through invisible technique, he created the world he wanted his audience to see using real people.
This connection is important because McCarthy does the opposite: he makes a familiar world unfamiliar by having characters we think we know do things we don’t expect. He hides his intentions with technique that is not invisible, just recognizeable… at least at first.