Writer-director Tom McCarthy's affecting new comedy drama Win Win tackles what might very well be the defining topic of our times: In a nation addicted to success, growth, and consumption, what happens when the bottom drops out and you can barely afford to pay your bills?
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a high school wrestling coach and suburban Chicago lawyer whose client list recently has dried up. He realizes that he can earn an additional $1,500 a month by agreeing to become the court-appointed legal guardian to one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), who is suffering from dementia. But Mike also decides to lie to the court and to Leo and -- against the older man's wishes -- move him into an elder care facility in order to minimize the obligations of his guardianship.
This is a bold move by McCarthy, to ask us to root for a character whose actions are illegal and plainly appalling. But the writer-director, who previously made The Station Agent and The Visitor and who knows a thing or two about conjuring up tender stories about irascible central figures, has a few tricks up his sleeve. For one thing, he's cast Giamatti in the lead, an actor whose perpetual exasperation can be very funny, until the humor suddenly evaporates and we're left with a core of poignancy and heartbreak.
McCarthy also gives this character a proper chance at redemption: Enter Kyle (the excellent newcomer Alex Shaffer), Leo's teenage grandson who has run away from home and turns up wanting to live with his grandfather. Mike has no choice but to allow him to stay in his house, much to the confusion of his wife (Amy Ryan), who doesn't know the details of Paul's deal with the court. The withdrawn, bleach-blond Kyle is clearly in need of a father figure. Against his better judgment, Mike draws the boy deeper into his world.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. A Fox Searchlight Pictures, opening Friday at Rave Levis Commons. Rated R for strong language. Running time: 106 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Mike Flaherty .......... Paul Giamatti
Jackie Flaherty ........... Amy Ryan
Kyle ............ Alex Shaffer
Win Win contains any number of contrivances, starting with the fact that Kyle happens to be a former state championship high school wrestler. There are also a few too many characters running around here, including Mike's wiseacre best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey).
But even when its gears are grinding, Win Win remains delicate and sincere. McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Pixar's Up, specializes in a low-key, gently comic brand of humanism -- a category that the movies have all but ceded to cable television shows like The Big C, Big Love, or Shameless. But unlike so many of those so-called grown-up shows on HBO or Showtime, there's nothing glib or easy about Win Win, which shows us what happens when decent-hearted people box themselves into lousy corners and realize there's no way out.
Will this movie's message resonate with viewers, most of whom still are struggling to find stable footing after the economic collapse? I suspect not. At the Sundance Film Festival, where Win Win premiered in January, I heard people complaining that the movie isn't as funny as its most obvious American-Dream-gone-sour antecedent, Little Miss Sunshine -- even though it's clearly not trying to be that funny.
Others griped that no lawyer would risk his entire career for a mere $1,500 a month -- even though that's precisely McCarthy's point, that our national anxiety has become so acute that we've lost all perspective. The truths of this movie might not be pleasant, but they are truths regardless: Most of us are a little bit lost, and a whole lot scared. But McCarthy is hardly without hope. And Win Win eloquently reminds us that in tough times the best we can do is hold a mirror up to society and try to find humor and fellowship within the nightmarish reflection.