Movie Review: Win Win

Subtle morality play w/ HS jock backdrop _ 8/10
Reviewed by Brian Wright

Win WinDirected by Thomas McCarthy
Written by Thomas McCarthy

Win Win is a terrific multigenre sleeper. It’s funny, even hilarious; it has mystery and action; and it features brilliant performances by the always-reliable Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. It’s also not a movie that wallows in treacly messages, and it’s not a movie that uses sports as a crutch for “finding one’s inner strength.” In short, it’s a wonderful, top-notch movie. — from user review, IMDb, Dan Franzen

Exactly. The kudos for this film lie in two general areas: story and acting. So it could easily be a stage play except for the difficulty capturing nuances of dialog of the ‘younger generation,’ mainly from Kyle (Alex Shaffer) the lead character who talks with the modern youth slanguage, in a clipped under-the-breath manner. [Though distinctly and with a moral force that belies his years.] But let’s back up… because this movie is all about making ethical choices.

Paul Giamatti … Mike Flaherty
Amy Ryan … Jackie Flaherty
Bobby Cannavale … Terry Delfino
Jeffrey Tambor … Stephen Vigman
Burt Young … Leo Poplar
Melanie Lynskey … Cindy
Alex Shaffer … Kyle
Margo Martindale … Eleanor

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‘Story matters here:’ From the gitgo we see small-town New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) struggling to make a go of his practice while finding time for his family and leading the high school wrestling team. On all three fronts Mike seems to be sliding downhill: he conceals his lawyer-business dire straits from his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), and the wrestling team hasn’t won a match in some time. To top it off, he suffers from panic attacks—revealed in the first scene as he’s ‘running’ with his best friend Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale).

The Terry character proves an essential comic relief valve throughout, as a good-natured, sex-driven real estate developer who’s had to cough up big bucks in a divorce. [The grimly funny situation: his wife left him for one of his employees, who helped build the mansion she won in the settlement! Fiction and truth all too often the same.] Anyway, he’s a loyal companion to Mike and responsible for a good bit of the witty repartee and levity to balance the dramatic elements.

[Partial spoiler warning.] Not to give the plot away but to set up the story, Mike has a elder client, Leo (Burt Young, the actor who played Talia Shire’s brother in Rocky) who is showing signs of mental incapacity. Let’s just say Mike stumbles upon a way to help himself financially at the expense of the old man’s wishes, a way that isn’t entirely on the up and up. But who’s going to know, Mike figures. Well, one day Mike and Jackie and the family are driving about, when they pass by Leo’s now vacated home. Waiting on the doorstep is young Kyle, who happens to be Leo’s grandkid.

As partly a genuine humanitarian gesture, the Flahertys take Kyle in. Turns out he is on the lam from Ohio, where his mother ‘has problems.’ The boy is such a quiet unassuming sort, and he gets along supremely with the Flaherty children, who are younger. His new parents get him enrolled in the local high school, and Mike, as an afterthought, asks if Kyle would like to be part of the wrestling team. Does he know wrestling? Well, Kyle asserts, yes I have done some wrestling. Not only has he done some wrestling, he’s been regional champion in his weight class! [End partial spoiler warning.]


That’s the setup. Now the acting, first the boy who plays Kyle. What a fine job by the directors and technical consultants, and of course Alex Shaffer, who create such an exceptional talent on the screen. The wrestling-team dynamic is rife with humor and pathos, but essentially the camaraderie of youth going through teen times. What I especially like are the wrestling scenes that convey what an all-American star would look like on the mats. It takes a special kind of acting to convince an audience that your character has world class abilities in a physical pursuit. Not just during competition but carrying those qualities of pride in achievement to scenes off the mats. The creative team of filmmakers and actor makes it look easy. Champions are a special breed.

Then the Giamatti character: We are introduced to him in a humorous vein, and he has a sort of jolly fellow-well-met demeanor. Thus it takes a while to figure that his actions vis-a-vis the legal system may be shady, or that he is fully aware of what he’s doing. The writer/director McCarthy[1] skillfully navigates these early scenes with Giamatti—a furtive glance here, a forced laugh there—so the viewer is only slowly drawn into the inevitable value judgment. A kind of movie where you ask yourself what would you do in similar circumstances… also keeps you hooked to find out what Flaherty actually does.

Great pacing, holds your interest with the action, and the relationship humor makes it a comfortable, friendly movie. For the whole family.

[1] I have a lot of admiration for McCarthy in his creative output: he wrote Up, The Visitor, and The Station Agent; he directed the latter two.

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