When you think of Paul Giamatti, what sort of character comes to mind? Probably a well-meaning schlub for whom life has not quite worked out; someone who vacillates between exasperation and self-deprecating humor; a person capable of exercising a certain degree of ethical flexibility. The actor pretty much has a monopoly on this type because he’s played it so often and so well. With his latest performance, he adds yet another to this list of endearing losers.
Win Win offers the story of small-time New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty. The film begins with a scene in which he’s jogging in the woods. Back at home, his young daughter asks where he is. Informed that her father is out running, she replies, “From what?”
The little girl’s question is right on the money. Or, rather, the shortage of it. What Mike hasn’t told his wife — a funny and formidable Amy Ryan — and two kids is that his practice is perilously close to going under. He’s down to a handful of clients and spends more time in the office bathroom plunging the toilet than he does arguing cases in court.
Here’s where that ethical flexibility comes in: Mike is called on to handle the case of an elderly man, Leo (Burt Young), who’s in the early stages of dementia. Leo’s daughter hasn’t been heard from in 20 years; because he has no guardian, the state wants to place him in an elder-care facility. Giamatti’s character knows the old guy wants to stay where he is and learns the guardian gig would pay a much-needed $1500 a month. Assuring the judge that he’ll look after Leo at home, he secures the guardianship for himself. And then deposits his disoriented ward in the facility after all.
Does this make the attorney a schmuck? Of course. Does it make him a less sympathetic character? Not for a minute. On the one hand, we know Mike is looking out for his family. On the other, there’s the chance he believes Leo will be best cared for this way. Does it complicate matters when Leo’s 16-year-old grandson, Kyle, unexpectedly shows up on Mike’s doorstep, fleeing from his home in Ohio and hoping to move in with his grandad? Big time.
Mike and his wife take in the boy, figuring his mother will be in touch shortly. The lawyer tells the sullen stranger the court ordered his grandfather’s institutionalization — so, as the two develop an unlikely bond, we know it’s tenuous, premised on a lie. Mike picks up a few extra dollars coaching the high school’s laughable wrestling team, along with his law partner (an amusingly dour Jeffrey Tambor). One day the kid asks to take part in after school practice. Played by real-life high school wrestling champion Alex Shaffer, in his first film appearance, Kyle blows everyone away with his skills, and Mike can’t get him into a uniform fast enough. The newcomer gives an uncanny performance.
Many a writer-director would cave to the temptation to make the movie’s third act all about the rag-tag team’s out-of-nowhere run for the state title. But Tom McCarthy is too fine a filmmaker for that. As he demonstrated in both The Station Agent and The Visitor, what interests him is the way human beings respond to unplanned intersections in their life paths. McCarthy’s third feature is filled wall to wall with well-drawn characters, and its script is as warm hearted as it is consistently witty. He takes an unhurried pleasure in exploring these people’s psychological nooks and crannies, and it’s a pleasure to watch as they reorder their lives to make room for one another.
If you like thoughtful comedy and storylines that lead to places and predicaments you haven’t encountered countless times before, you simply must check out Win Win. There’s no way you can lose.
* Running time: 106 min.
* Rated: R
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