The continuing wane of the economy has not only affected ticket sales, but movie themes as well. Much of the cinema released today discusses the recession and the various responses to hard economic times. Some of these films use the idea of ordinary yet desperate people as an excuse for some kind of sitcom gimmick, while others portray victims of the recession in implausible ways that demonstrate how little the film industry knows about the true nature of economic hardship. Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” is one of the rare movies that shows the rash decisions of the unfortunate, yet well-intentioned people in a realistic and amusingly offbeat way.
The film surrounds the perpetually exhausted Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) and his slowing law practice, where he primarily deals with senior citizens. One of his clients, Leo (Burt Young), is declared unfit to take care of himself due to his early stages of dementia. Since no immediate family of his can be contacted, the New Jersey state court forces him to live in a retirement home unless someone is willing to act as his legal guardian. Seeing the opportunity for a much needed commission, Mike convinces the court to declare him Leo’s legal guardian. After simply placing Leo in the home and pocketing the commission, Leo’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), shows up on his doorstep and Mike has no choice but to bring him home to live with his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Clare Foley).
Mike spends his evenings coaching the local high school’s ragtag wrestling team with his co-worker Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), and after discovering Kyle’s talent as a wrestler, he sees his once unfortunate situation as the titular “win-win,” until various complications arise. Mike’s responses to these complications change the way his family and friends see him and even how he sees himself; he knows he has made poor decisions, yet he defends them to save his family, his practice and his conscience. Giamatti’s knack for playing Job-like figures shows as he handles the mixed feelings of an exasperated, desperate man fighting to survive during difficult times.
The other performances provide a lighthearted, optimistic foil to Giamatti’s post-neurotic droop. Bobby Cannavale, a frequent McCarthy collaborator, is the hilarious standout as Mike’s friend Terry, a recently divorced, stereotypical New Jersey doofus. Ryan plays Mike’s “Jersey girl” wife, Jackie, a caring and supportive harbinger of tough love whom Mike must hold back from releasing her “Garden State” tendencies at several points throughout the film.
The newcomer, Shaffer, has few acting chops — he’s a high school wrestler from New Jersey — but his monotone delivery works in his role as a juvenile delinquent coming from a broken family. He even manages a rebellious charm while tossing and jack-hammering his teenage co-stars on a wrestling mat. (Ed. note: Yes, in that way.) Young portrays dementia in an honest, sympathetic way in one of his best, most ornery roles to date. Tambor, as always, plays his usual absentminded, droll self.
Director and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy has a true talent for portraying dysfunctional families drawn together during times of stress. “Win Win” puts a light coat on a heavy subject that, if handled by another director, would have been a much darker movie. McCarthy lets his actors do all of the work, allowing them to prod and bounce off of each other with their own idiosyncrasies. He observes more than he directs, resulting in anhonest and sympathetic portrayal of the inherent human tendency to act before thinking during desperate times, and the most heartwarming thing to ever come out of New Jersey.