'Win Win': A Winner
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It was mere weeks ago, in a review of the rather terrible "Hall Pass" that I expressed a general distaste for comedies that placed a big stake on their characters coming out of the far ends of their story lines as better people. Or, as "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" maestro Larry David once so eloquently put this position, "No learning." But now I am about to go to bat for a modestly scaled comedy in which quite a significant bit of, um, learning is had. What can I say? That I, like Walt Whitman, contain multitudes? No, that's too old, and won't wash.
Better to just admit that "Win Win" couches its "learning" in a solidly constructed story about really interesting, engaging and believable characters, keeps the laughs coming on a very consistent basis, and doesn't drown the whole concoction in a shower of confectioners' sugar once the necessary lessons have been learned. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who's proved himself very crafty with low-budget, low-key, intimate comedy-dramas that touch on Big Themes (his prior films include "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor") "Win Win," featuring a near-definitive likeable schlub lead performance from the great Paul Giamatti, is maybe the most deft and smoothly enjoyable picture to come from the writer-director, in spite of some of its more obvious ploys.
Then again, maybe they're meant to be obvious. At the film's outset, Giamatti's Mike Flaherty, an attorney in a small New Jersey town, is out jogging, huffily and puffily, with his affluent goofball best pal Terry (the invaluable Bobby Cannavale) and bemoaning the near-moribund state of his lawyering business. It's a situation that's got him so stressed out that he soon imagines he's having a heart attack, which obviously cuts the jogging session short. Before his collapse, he brushes off Terry's suggestion that, to make ends meet, he take a bartending job at a joint run by one of the burg's more successful entrepreneurs. Mike dismisses the suggestion out of hand, like he's too good for a bartending job. "Take the bartending job," this reviewer said, not to the screen. "It's not beneath you -- you've got a family to support." (An adorable family at that: Mike's sensible, grounded but still lively wife, Jackie, is played by the redoubtable Amy Ryan, and there are a couple of cute but not cloyingly precocious moppets to boot.) And of course I was/am right, and if the same thought occurs to you at this point in the movie, you're right, too. On the other hand, if he takes the bartending job at that point, there's no movie. (OK, maybe there's a different movie.)
What Mike does instead is sneakily defraud an aging client, Leo, who may or may not be in the first stages of dementia (played by Burt Young, which is a nice bit of casting, as the character actor has always been one of those "what is going ON with this guy" guys), dumping the fellow in an admittedly not-awful-looking home while pocketing a middling guardianship fee. Complications are bound to ensue, the first being the appearance of Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer). With his weird bottle-blond hair and diffident, withdrawn, but not entirely unfriendly manner, Kyle is something of a puzzle to the Flahertys. Mike insists that the family take Kyle in, the better to cover up Mike's double-dealing. Soon it surfaces that before his substantial troubles at home began, Kyle had been a high school wrestling prodigy; as it happens, Mike himself is the coach of his local high's all-loser wrestling team. You get where this is going, right?
The thing is, McCarthy's screenwriting is so supple, his characterizations so well-observed and sharply detailed, that none of the little story dovetails that bring Kyle and the Flahertys and Leo and the wrestling team together so as to, it would seem, bring about the state to which the film's title refers, seem at all contrived or forced. And when a player enters the scene to ostensibly throw a monkey wrench in the works -- that would be Kyle's mom, the drug-addicted daughter of Leo who has been unfindable for years (a terrific Melanie Lynskey) -- this, too, feels organic, even though we understand her to be not just a character, but the agent who is going to push Mike's betrayal of what is, after all, a sacred trust to the foreground, because none of the "wins" would be real were that bad faith move allowed to stand. Aristotle says so, I think.
In any event, it's to McCarthy's credit that when the reveal happens, he plays the hurt feelings as much for some good laughs as he does for pathos and/or poignancy. Nor does he overmilk the drama. Which is in keeping with all of the film's performances. Giamatti does some really remarkable underplaying here, which leaves ample space in which Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor (as a business associate of Mike's who's also part of the coaching staff) can do broader comic work. While he has his manic moments, his interplay with Ryan is thoroughly true (the affectionate way they clash early in the movie over where one of their moppets learned a swear word sets their tone), and his general demeanor accomplishes something that most Hollywood films would have heart attacks themselves before even conceiving of conveying: that being an average guy is hardly the worst fate on Earth a man can suffer. Has some good points, even.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.