Movie Review: Win Win
By Matthew Huntley
March 23, 2011
Win Win is a funny, touching drama that could have pressed all the easy emotional buttons but opts for a more realistic, unaffected approach. It’s all the better for it because it leaves us in a mild state of reflection instead of feeling jerked around or manipulated. The writer and director is Thomas McCarthy, who specializes in straight, human stories without all the put-ons of melodrama. His films tend to be about the people we went to school with, the people we work with or the people who live down the street. In other words, they’re about people like us.
In a suburban town in New Jersey, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is small-time attorney with an outspoken yet loving wife named Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two young daughters. Mike primarily counsels senior citizens, like an old man who claims his son stole his cat or another old man named Leo (Burt Young) who’s in the early stages of dementia. The state deems Leo incapacitated, and to legally remain in his own house, he needs a caregiver. Otherwise, he’ll be placed a nursing home.
Business has been slow at Mike’s firm and when he realizes there’s a $1,500 commission to act as Leo’s caregiver, he takes the job on himself but still places Leo in the nursing home. He’ll visit Leo from time to time, but most of the care giving will be administered by the nursing home.
It’s a shifty thing Mike is doing but we understand given his circumstances. He’s not making enough money as a lawyer and his part-time job as the local wrestling coach isn’t exactly raking in the dough. He shares this duty with his law partner Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) and eventually his buddy Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who uses it as a distraction from his ex-wife.
One day, while checking up on Leo’s house, Mike finds Kyle (Alex Shaffer) sitting on the doorstep. He’s Leo’s 15-year-old grandson who’s run away because he can’t stand living with his mother back in Columbus, who’s recovering from drug addiction. Mike informs Kyle of Leo’s situation but rather than send the kid away, he and Jackie decide to let him stay in their basement until matters are sorted out, although not without hesitation. Ryan has the benefit of delivering the movie’s funniest lines, including, “I’m not taking any risks with Eminem down there.”
When Kyle asks Mike if he can practice with the wrestling team, Mike discovers the kid is a bit of a prodigy on the mats, so he enrolls him in school and puts him on the team. All the while, Mike and Jackie sort of become Kyle’s surrogate parents, at least until his mom (Melanie Lyskey) returns. She’s not quite stable enough to be a full-time parent, but it’s clear she’s mostly interested in Leo’s estate.
Given the story, we expect Win Win will go in one of many anticipated directions. The possibilities range from Kyle becoming a wrestling star and his future (and the movie) boiling down to “the big match”; Mike and Jackie fighting for custody of Kyle that culminates in a tear jerking courtroom scene; Kyle’s mom showing signs she’s recovered but then relapsing just in time for Mike and Jackie to step and save the day; or Kyle running away because he feels he doesn’t really belong with these good-hearted people. What’s interesting is the screenplay takes a little bit from each scenario but still manages to be honest and relatively unpredictable as a whole. McCarthy writes his characters not as movie types but as people he probably knows in real life and he directs the actors accordingly.
Take, for instance, the scenes between Jackie and Kyle. In one, she answers his phone because she sees it’s his mom calling and she’s already furious because the woman doesn’t know where her son is. Kyle catches her but asks that she doesn’t do this any more. This scene could have played out the typical “movie” way, in which Jackie gets into a heated argument with Kyle’s mother and then starts speaking showy dialogue that a woman of Jackie’s nature would probably never say, or maybe Kyle and Jackie get into a fight and Kyle storms off. But watch, the scene unfolds unexpectedly; it’s more practical and honest, as is a later scene when Jackie and Kyle go to the grocery store. Given how predictable and grandstanding Hollywood dramas have become, we’re surprised when they’re this credible and down-to-earth.
The ending is a tad abrupt and I would have liked more dialogue between Kyle and his mother to better understand the dynamic of their relationship (the brief moment they share at the end is over too quickly), and the whole film ends on what is perhaps an artificial note that’s really just simplified moralizing. Still, we accept it because of the film’s heart and honesty.
As entertainment, Win Win either has you laughing or smiling, and we appreciate the way it doesn’t accent each scene with heavy-handed emotional beats, to which the cast is perfectly suited. When a film like this comes along, we realize movies don’t have to be about outrageously drawn people or situations to hold our attention. They can be about the people we know and still manage to be engaging and tug at our heart strings.