With Win Win, the character actor and occasional writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) continues his run of charming, slice-of-life films for grown-ups. Or, really, for families—particularly of the makeshift variety—that are McCarthy’s great subject.
Paul Giamatti (left) stars in Win Win as a suburban New Jersey attorney and volunteer wrestling coach. His routine is upturned when he adopts the care of an elderly man, whose grandson (Alex Shaffer, right), a gifted wrestler, enters the fray.
Paul Giamatti is in fine form as the anguished Mike Flaherty, a lawyer and high-school wrestling coach whose life of quiet desperation turns him into an unsteady pillar of his suburban New Jersey community. For dubious reasons, Mike volunteers to become the court-appointed guardian of a demented elderly man (Burt Young), whom he promptly stashes away in a nursing home. Mike’s wife Jackie, played by Amy Ryan with her usual wised-up warmth, isn’t sure what to make of this—especially when the old man’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), runs away from an absentee-addict mother (Melanie Lynskey) in Ohio, and shows up on his grandfather’s doorstep.
Now, it just so happens that Kyle is a very talented wrestler. Does that fact constitute a blessing for Mike, or something else? Certainly it exacerbates the funny rivalry between Mike’s assistant coaches (Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor). Certainly it sets up a serious conflict when Kyle’s mom, fresh from rehab, comes to reclaim him.
Plot-wise, McCarthy has a knack for movielike coincidences that would seem too farfetched in almost anyone else’s hands. Stranger things have happened in real life, Win Win implies, and the important thing is that the real plot driver here is a series of decisions made by flaw-prone, generally decent, human characters. This is not quite a “sports movie,” nor really an “indie movie,” and that absence of quotation marks feels just fine. The film is satisfying, if not because the plot is resolved conventionally, then because it avoids being pat. It’s a modest but real thrill to see such clear characterization, and to witness strong performers taking up the many generous opportunities that a bright and humane young filmmaker has afforded them.
It’s also worth noting that McCarthy and co-writer Joe Tiboni, his childhood friend and fellow high-school wrestler, grew up together in suburban New Jersey. The world of Win Win obviously is one they know well, and they’ve chosen to depict with a trustworthy balance of affection and critical distance. Which is not to say the place seems heavily mediated. In fact, Win Win has a palpable unity of style, with writing, acting, directing, cinematography and editing that all achieve a plainspokenness.
That’s much harder to do than McCarthy and company make it seem, not least because so many movies now seem to fear directness and instead indulge the temptation to be in some way stylish. But McCarthy trusts his voice and his collaborators and his audience. That’s something everybody can feel good about.