Win Win ✮✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
If there’s a more agreeable comedy now making the rounds than Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win,” please, someone, tell me about it.
Until then, I’ll savor my every memory of this low-key charmer. It’s easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year, another unpredictable heart-tugger from the writer-director of “The Station Agent.”
Paul Giamatti, whose poorly concealed paunch and deep-set eyes bring to mind a rumpled raccoon, this time plays a cash-strapped New Jersey lawyer who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. The wonderful Amy Ryan plays his wife. They complement each other beautifully — he’s soft-spoken, slightly neurotic; she’s feisty, always fast with a quip that deflates without inflicting damage.
Frightened that his law practice is about to go under and, consequently, prone to anxiety attacks, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) buys a pack of cigarettes, removes one and tosses the rest of the pack. So fortified, he’s ready to take a calculated risk by (sort of) becoming the guardian of a rich client (Burt Young) suffering from dementia. What Mike doesn’t count on is the client’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), showing up.
On the run from his “druggie” mother (Melanie Lynskey), the blank-faced 16-year-old proves to be a phenomenal wrestler, a former state champion back home in Ohio. Mike is impressed. “What’s it feel like to be as good as you?” he asks. “I guess it feels like I’m in control,” the boys replies, establishing a lasting link with a man who survives by squeaking by.
Mike’s friends ‒ assistant coach Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) and jogging buddy Terry (the priceless Bobby Cannavale) ‒ are even more impressed by the star wrestler. Like children, they squabble over the right to sit by the now winning coach “for luck.” Terry, a case of arrested development who’s dealing (badly) with marital issues, openly worships the kid as if he were a WrestleMania superstar. Mike has to shhh his naked battle whoops from the sidelines. Kyle eyes the pair with seeming disinterest.
At this juncture, this low-budget indie could have easily gone off in a number of directions, become a feel-good sports movie like “Hoosiers” or “Vision Quest,” also about high-school wrestling. To his credit, McCarthy concentrates on the family dynamics, threatened from without by the specter of Kyle’s estranged mother, who does indeed turn up, and from within by Mike’s liberal reading of custody law. None of this feels contrived, however, because of the pacing and easygoing rapport between Giamatti and Ryan, who, in contrast to just about every Hollywood couple, serious or comedic, actually feel married with children. Giamatti, in his best performance since “Sideways,” doesn’t seem capable of a phony gesture or sentiment. His Mike is what he seems: a nice guy who pulls a few strings to make things a little better. Ryan’s wife is willing to accept his imperfections, to a point.
“Win Win” is a win-win, not just for its strong sense of suburban Jersey, but for its delightful ensemble, which, besides Young and Cannavale, includes David W. Thompson as a gawky kid who’s comfortable on the sidelines and Nina Arianda as Mike’s receptionist, who obviously knows more than she’s saying, like a lot of characters here.
WIN WIN ✮✮✮✮ With Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey. Directed, written by Thomas McCarthy. 106 min. Rated: R (but should be PG-13 for locker-room language)