Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Love: Win Win

Win Win is aptly titled, this much is true.  It's name carries no punny irony, but instead, as if prophesied, it succeeds on two fronts:  it's a charming familial dramedy as well as an alarmingly engaging high school sports flick.  Paul Giamatti leads a cast of of familiar faces (Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Melanie Lynskey, and Jeffrey Tambor) through a quirkier, slice of life, grungier version of The Blind Side.  Except, you know, where The Blind Side is true, Win Win feels true instead of feeling like a moral fairy tale.  When small town attorney/wrestling coach Mike Flaherty finds the runaway teen grandson (newcomer Alex Shaffer) of his senile client waiting idly on the front stoop, lack of means and circumstance leads him to take the kid in.  It's another in a series of Mike's recent frustrations; there's not much work in town as an attorney, the wrestling team sucks, the plumbing at the office has gone to shit.  Kyle's a quiet, angsty looking blonde kid who makes initially makes Mike's wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) nervous and who has a mother that just can't be reached.  The longer it takes, the more Mike's stuck dragging the cigarette smoking skate punk from job to job.  Naturally, like the aforementioned film, it turns out Kyle's actually got a fair amount of skill as a wrestler. Naturally.    
It's unlikely that anyone will argue Win Win isn't predictable.  Spoiler alert: in many ways, it is just that.  Luckily, though, the story isn't what's at stake.  Win Win doesn't thrive on plot. When we travel from point A to point B we're not dwelling on whether or not the action is trite.  Instead, we're enjoying spending time with the characters.  Win Win  is a little film that works as a little world.  It's a portrait of a great many people in the midst of constructing common threads.  The film is driven by its characters, our relationships to them, and their relationships to each other.  It's best when it shows us its inhabitants at their most unassuming.  This is about Mike buying a pack of cigarettes, smoking one behind the mini-mart, and throwing the rest out.  It's about how oddly endearing it is to watch Mike and his overenthusiastic divorcee friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) checking out Youtube clips of Kyle's former matches and leaping up from their chairs in excitement like they're watching a live game on a 60-ince flat screen.  It's about Jackie's dorky Bon Jovi-themed tattoo, her daughter's desperate hunt for someone to play croquet with, and the little moments that add up to the bigger picture.  These characters aren't merely likable, they're realistic.   Director Thomas McCarthy does with this "family" what he did with The Visitor and The Station Agent, and his casting of Giamatti is perfect.  Giamatti is one of the great bumblers.  He's also, of course, an excellent actor who can use that power in mysterious ways.  Here, he's well-meaning guy with a little bit of conflict trying to live up to the expectation of his strong-willed wife and keep his kids in the life they're used to.  Ryan, with a bit of Jersey girl tough talk, is a great equal for Giamatti and they're absolutely believable as a married set.  Shaffer is perhaps the weak spot, but while he's not the best at emotional outbursts, he's spot on as 'average teen' and  there's something to be said for balancing the dual nature of school bad ass and good kid.  Together, the cast makes Win Win a movie worth seeing.  It's sweet and simple, in possession of fully formed characters and enough real heart to make semi-transparency worthwhile.    




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