McCarthy’s Latest is a ‘Win Win’
Win Win -- Dir. Tom McCarthy (Fox Searchlight) -- 4.5 Stars
“Win Win” is a winner. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy delivers with his third feature, thanks to the superb performances of Hollywood stalwart Paul Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer. An unconventional family drama, the film tugs at the heartstrings while making use of authentic characters and quirky dialogue to avoid the pitfalls of cliché and its story’s occasionally implausible plot points.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an elder care lawyer who coaches high school wrestling at night. Short on cash, Giamatti commits to becoming the legal guardian of his most wealthy client, Leo—played by the wry and cantankerous Burt Young—after he learns that it will net him an extra $1,500 a month.
Even then, everything seems to be falling apart for Giamatti. In addition to struggling with his law practice and failing wrestling team, he has stress-induced chest pains and a smoking habit. Matters continue to worsen until the arrival of Leo’s 16-year-old grandson Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), a troubled wrestling prodigy trying to escape his drug addict mother (Melanie Lynskey).
“We have kids, Mike, I’m not taking chances with Eminem down there,” Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan) says, as Kyle shacks up in the basement. Despite the potential danger of hosting the tattooed teen, the family takes him in. Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s Eminem reference is particularly apt, as Shaffer has said he would listen to the rapper to channel the anger required for Kyle’s character. Like the Flahertys, McCarthy took a leap faith in taking on Shaffer, whose acting resume consisted only of his 6th-grade appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” His lack of dramatic experience, however, is easily balanced by his real-life experience: Shaffer became a New Jersey state wrestling champion just before production for the film began.
Though Shaffer is new to the acting game, he becomes the angsty Kyle effortlessly, forming a “Blind Side”-like bond with Giamatti, whose progression from self-sabotaging lawyer to proud father is both heartwarming and genuine. These performances are crucial, as with a low budget and improbable storyline, “Win Win” is highly dependent upon quality acting—making McCarthy’s casting choices of Giamatti and Shaffer inspired ones.
Candid and authentic supporting characters also drive McCarthy’s writing forward. Giamatti’s quick-witted young daughter (Clare Foley), who opens the movie with a series of profane remarks, and Giamatti’s best friend Terry Delfino’s (Bobby Cannavale) cheating wife and subsequent mid-life crisis both provide much-needed comic relief.
These actors’ genuine delivery on screen can be attributed to McCarthy’s painstaking work habits and devotion to the messages conveyed by his writing and filming. A famed perfectionist, McCarthy is known to agonize over an individual line for hours simply to ensure that it is something that one of his characters would utter in real life. His determination to make the film’s characters perfect—and therefore, imperfect—surfaces throughout “Win Win.” The people in the film feel real, even on those occasions when the story does not.
McCarthy’s careful effort clearly pays off. His third feature project is both surprising and witty, striking the perfect balance between high school sports movie and family drama. It is the rare film that can comingle laughs and an improbable plot with deeper themes of masculinity, familial loyalty, and the responsibilities of parenthood. Refreshing and inspiring, “Win Win” will likely move even those moviegoers who showed up just for the wrestling rush.