Win Win – 2011

Written and Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, Alex Shaffer, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, David W. Thompson

Win Win is a movie so effortlessly amazing that it makes you happy to be alive just long enough to have viewed it.  Each performance is so complete and well-rounded that they mesh seamlessly with the story and direction, both by Thomas McCarthy.  McCarthy, a veteran actor, writer and director, had a winning hand out of the gate with 2003’s wonderfully sonorous, The Station Agent.  He followed this with the equally simple and stunning The Visitor in 2008.  His track record so far is straight A’s, with a chance to be even better.

Giamatti, in an effort that would be a career performance for just about any other actor, plays small time lawyer and even smaller time H.S. wrestling coach Mike Flaherty.  He is a good, honest guy with a responsive, but not intrusive wife (Ryan) Jackie and two healthy kids and a lot of things going well in his life.  Then there are the drawbacks.  His practice is struggling to make ends meet and struggling to even get a team win in wrestling.  The overall effect has lead to several panic attacks that he tries to push through until he is spotted by his friend, Terry.

Mike makes a decision about this time that will have a positive impact on his life and the lives of others.  Only problem is, the decision was to lie.  The decision is further exacerbated with the arrival of a young man, Kyle Timmons (Shaffer, in a simple, remarkable performance) whose ability at wrestling is beginning to turn the team’s attitude for the better.  Of course not everything can go right in a movie and sustain interest, but in this case, I would like to have given it a shot.  Soon enough, Kyle’s mother (Lynskey) comes back to town, lawyer (Martindale) in tow and everything starts to unravel.

Nearly performance in Win Win is Oscar worthy, even down the the wrestler who’s never been in a match (Thompson) and idolizes Kyle, even though Kyle took his place.  Burt Young, playing Kyle’s estranged grandfather, gives a touching and comic presence as a man who is in the beginning stages of dementia.   Martindale is on a real hot streak, with her performances in Secretariat, the second season of Justified and here, as a lawyer calm enough to realize that winning isn’t always the best thing.  Even Lynskey, ever the sensible friend in movies like Ever After, Coyote Ugly and Sweet Home Alabama, gets a chance to sink her teeth into a somewhat unsympathetic character, and she takes it for a ride.

Canavale’s Terry (left) just wants a piece of the action.

Bobby Canavale has been around forever.  I have never seen him as accessible and unhinged as he is here playing Terry Delfino.  His sheer adolescent approach to sports and life (for him, there may be no difference) is a dead ringer for one of my favorite radio personalities, Stugotz from South Florida’s #1 radio show The Dan Lebetard Show with Stugotz.  A guy who will never be a loser, as long as he can beat people at Wii Golf, Terry finds a way to become an assistant wrestling coach, even though he never won a match in school.  The reason: he wants to be part of the phenomenon that is his new hero, Kyle Timmons.  This was, perhaps, the best supporting role I have seen in a film since Sean Astin in The Lord of the Ringstrilogy.

What’s a little mis-representation in the name of this beautiful family…

Amy Ryan is a heavy weight.  Her performance in Gone Baby Gone and The Office should have catapulted her to stardom, but it is lucky for everyone that she still does movies that she can inhabit with real human emotion.  As Jackie, she is a wife who trusts that her husband is doing the right thing, but is also trusting him to ask when he is making decisions that can impacting their lives.  Even when he doesn’t, she doesn’t overreact.  Ryan’s Jackie treats the situation exactly as a married mother of two has to: rationally and lovingly.  Hers is perhaps the most understated performance of the movie, but it does not lessen her impact.

Alex Shaffer has never been in a movie before.  He has wrestled before, winning the New Jersey state championship at 119lbs as a sophomore.  After injury to his back ended his amateur career, he tried out for this role, when he discovered the role was as a wrestler.  His effortless grace and reserve is exactly the perfect counterpart to Giamatti’s performance, but really every one else’s as well.  I look forward to seeing what he can do in the future.

Giamatti and Shaffer, the heart of the film

Giamatti is perhaps the best comic/drama actor of his generation.  He doesn’t do action, and isn’t much for romance, but for what he does do, he is Albert Pujols.  Astoundingly, he has been nominated only once for an Oscar.  Mike Flaherty should be his second and his first win.  His Mike Flaherty is the American that most of us want to be.  Struggling a bit, working hard, making questionable decisions only to improve the family’s lot in life.  His judgement is resonable, and his decisions match those that the viewer would make, ideally.  He is weighed down a bit, but he’s too happy in general to give up.  He has a good wife, good kids, a good friend and a good job.  He is grateful.  Giamatti plays it all with an economy of words and facial expressions that only a master could conjure.

McCarthy completely trusts his acting talent to carry out the subtle strength of this script.  There are many moments that you will have to see.  Rare is the director that has the skill to fully utilize the entire screen, especially in a quiet film.  If it weren’t for the language, I would call this a family film.  It would be great for viewing with any child over 13.  The only small drawback in the film is the unnecessary wrestling match between the two principals, even if it is in the same goofy vein as the rest of the film’s rare histrionics.   That aside, McCarthy has the potential for an Oscar or two down the road, whether writing, directing or both.

See this film, only if you like to be entertained without necessarily needing explosions, animation or depression.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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