Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Win Win

2011. Dir: Thomas McCarthy. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young and Bobby Cannavale. ●●●●○

Win Win is not the type of film that does well in cinemas, bereft of high-profile stars, difficult to classify it's genre and featuring small scale family situations that don't sensationalise reality it has all the hallmarks of an American indie film that drifts past the box office figures and doesn't stir up awards talk. This is a shame as Tom McCarthy's third film is as close a vision of realistic humanity that we will see in the multiplex.

Paul Giamatti takes the central role of Mike Flaherty, a schlubby (natch) lawyer, high school wrestling coach and family man in a small town trying to make ends meet with his one man legal practice. He is, on the face of it, a paragon of suburban American values; he tries to set a good example to his young children (there's an extended early joke about the daughter picking up on rude words), dedicates time to his community and is unafraid to unblock his office toilet. There's the small matter of hiding his slow financial position from his wife (Amy Ryan) and his panic attacks from his best friend (Bobby Cannavale) but these are understandable, humanistic faults.

Then, in an attempt to save his business, he does one wrong thing. He take son the guardianship of Leo - an elderly client suffering from early stages of dementia (Burt Young) - and quickly puts him in a Nursing Home, pocketing the $1,500 per month. Within days Leo's hitherto unmentioned teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer) arrives on his doorstep, homeless and on the run from his drug dependent mother (Melanie Lynskey) and blessed with an extraordinary talent at wrestling.

Whilst you can probably guess where the plot goes from there, this movie is never about the twists and turns, it merely presents the predictability of life, exploring the relationships that drive this unlikely family unit and asks whether a bad deed can - in the end - lead to a good result.

Giamatti and Ryan put in sterling work as the central couple, he's all everyman desperation she's flinty and pragmatic, and they balance each other perfectly such that every sentence, every look comes across as the normal affectations of a genuine marriage. You know it's hard for them sometimes, and perhaps there are days when they bicker about the shopping and mundane nature of their existence, but ultimately there's real love in the pairing, somehow these two will make it through life's journey.

Alex Shaffer, as their unexpected visitor, is an odd screen presence, monosyllabic and quiet it takes a while to tune into his performance but it's perfectly judged. Listless and diffident it's a teenager performance that doesn't seem cliched or precocious. Whether charting his first steps at bonding with the other kids on the wrestling team or the unexpected journey the character has to make he is able to convey the emotion without losing sight of the teenage inability to fully express their thoughts. Shaffer is a first time screen-actor (although his experience as a high school wrestling champ is clearly in evidence) and I sincerely hope that he continues to work in the medium.

Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor (as Giamatti's sad-sack assistant coach) are fine comedic foils to the main action, but have little to really do in the roles. The only missed note is Lynskey who overplays her neediness and whose character does not have the real-world nuances of everyone else.

Ultimately though as writer and director this is Tom McCarthy's film. He has returned to the rich mine of people struggling to make sense of the world around them and generally being missed in a crowd and has once again created characters and situations that we can all relate to and understand, ensuring that no-one is a saint or a rogue but a little of both, a combination of competing character traits. Whilst there is a general lack of ambition in the screenplay it doesn't matter so much when the content is as perfectly formed as the dramedy is here.

One annoying aspect is the product placement. Normally I would hardly notice the coke cans and computers however when one of the lines is "Oh, it's Wii Golf. You should try it, it's great." With more than one occasion of on-screen playing. All of these completely took me out of the picture.

This is a small film, about small things, but don't be fooled you will struggle to find a movie that presents such an intimate and true portrayal of average humanity this year.


TomS said...

A thoughtful review. This one is hard to find but sounds like it's wirth a special trip. I have heard that the young wrestler is a fantastic screen presence. (I am not a big fan of Mr. Giamatti I will have to leave my preconceptions at the door, I guess!)

Runs Like A Gay said...

It's a nice low-key movie, worth catching up with. And Shaffer certainly is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

Giamatti does nothing here that you haven't seen before, although he's less himself than he usually is. The relationship between him and Ryan though is perfectly played.