Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 19, 2011 6:28 pm 
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Tom McCarthy turns to everyday life

Win Win is a movie -- and a very winning one -- about a guy who's a wrestling coach on the side -- and his team is constantly losing. He moonlights at that while his main occupation as a small town New Jersey lawyer is failing. It's the recession we live in. He cannot afford to get anything fixed and he's jogging because his doctor suggested that as a cure for the panic attacks he's been having. Then along comes an opportunity for some extra income that's somewhat illicit, and with that comes what seems like a big stroke of luck.

He has a well-off client who's in the early stages of dementia and is threatened with being put in a care facility by the state. He arranges to be the client's legal guardian ostensibly so the old man can remain living in his house as he wishes, but he puts the man in a retirement home at his expense, while pocketing the $1,500 a month payment from his estate for managing him at home. It's a cheat and he hides it from his office assistant and his wife. Then along comes the old man's grandson from Ohio, running from his addict mom, and the youth turns out to be an ace wrestler who can bring the team he coaches way up in rankings.

Tom McCarthy is very much an independent filmmaker, and this story turns out to come out of his experience. In fact with this third film he moves from "indie" to truly personal and independent. McCarthy was a high school wrestler in New Jersey. It's not surprising that he made the choice early on to cast a real champion wrestler as the grandson, and that he worked with an old wrestling buddy in putting together the script. And his main character, the lawyer, played by Paul Giamatti, has an Irish name like him, Mike Flaherty. There's an equivalent of his collaborator Joe Tiboni in the film too. It's Mike's old wrestling pal Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale, who was highly visible in McCarthy's debut film), who gets excited when Kyle turns up and insists on becoming a third, comically overenthusiastic, coach of the team.

There hasn't really been a wrestling film since Vision Quest, and McCarthy has said he wanted to do one and thought it was a funny subject and also an interesting one to do right. This, however, is a movie not about wrestling -- or the big come-from-behind finale of sports movies -- but about families and compromises. It's about two families, one broken and one sound but financially strapped, that in the course of the movie partially come together into a new whole.

The broken family is that of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), the old client with beginning dementia, who hasn't seen his daughter in twenty years and whose grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes looking for him to escape from her, his drug-addicted mother, and her abusive boyfriend. The sound family is Mike Flaherty's.

Kyle's appearance puts Mike in trouble. Leo has never met Kyle but the youth finds his house -- and finds his grandfather not there. Eventually Mike's ruse is going to come out. Meanwhile to smooth things over Mike takes Kyle in. Mike's relationship with his little girl Abby (Clare Foley) and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is fundamentally healthy and decent, but he's lying about pocketing the guardian fee for Leo.

Kyle's wrestling talent is the unexpected bonus. For a while Terry, Mike, and Kyle are all happy, and Abby and Jackie take to Kyle, bleached hair, smoking, tatooed back, and all. Kyle has not wrestled for a while, and returning to something he excels at makes him feel powerful. Wrestling isn't the main theme, but it represents something important: being a man and succeeding at something. This is what Mike has been lacking, as well as his team, and his friend Terry, who feels emasculated by being dumped by his wife for another man, even though he's financially successful. Then this honeymoon is interrupted when Kyle's mom (Melanie Lynskey) turns up, out of rehab and wanting to take over Leo and his money, and Kyle.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to take Win Win. It begins with a series of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, and ends with a series of negotiations and compromises. The title is ironic. I was hard on McCarthy's writing-directing debut The Station Agent, deriding it as a classic example of the American "indie" style. His second movie, The Visitor, was somewhat simplistic, but it moved far away from the cute quirkiness of indie films to the serious issues of loneliness and immigration. Win Win is McCarthy's most complex and personal film yet, his most everyday story and his funniest. It's also one of Paul Giamatti's best and most winning roles since American Splendor and Sideways. It has flaws in the story. It seems questionable that Kyle would gain admission to high school and qualify for athletic competition so quickly, or that the arrangements with Leo and Kyle's mother, not to mention Mike's willingness to compromise on his career, could happen as easily as they seem to. But it's to McCarthy's credit that when the movie ends it leaves you with things to puzzle over.

McCarthy being himself an actor, has again chosen his actors well and drawn fine work from them. Amy Ryan is admirably understated and warm. Carnavale is a little grating, but that's what he's there for. Though without acting experience, as Kyle, Alex Shaffer (who has wrestled since he was five) is not only great in the wrestling scenes, but an authentic, mysterious teenage boy with some convincing moments of anger and outrage. Even small roles are effective, such as Margo Martindale as Kye's mother's attorney. David Thompson is excellent and funny as Stemler, Kyle's best friend on the wrestling team, who has never been in a competition match but finally, thanks to Kyle, feels "the Force." It's the down-to-earth focus and the many small details that make this a superior film.

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