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Win Win

Mike Flaherty jogs along one morning in a hooded sweatshirt and cotton sweat pants.  In terms of style and wear, the ensemble looks like it could be from Mike's high school or college days, culled from the depths of the closet for a mid-life resolution of weight loss and fitness.   The camera follows his slow progress along a path as two other joggers with sleeker gear and more elastic strides, separate, pass and leave him behind.   Paul Giamatti, as Mike Flaherty, round of face and figure, stops and looks toward his athletic betters as only Giamett can:  a veritable mound of pathos.  

Lest we think this an overrection to being passed on a rural jogging path, we soon find out that that the man is struggling to keep up in more significant ways.   The "PIONEERS" emblazoned on the gold hooded sweatshirt he wears while jogging is the name of the high school wrestling team that he coaches with Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor).  The Pioneers are a pretty scrawny bunch whose efforts on the mats mainly help to improve the records high school teams they face.   Wrestlers and coaches seem well matched, if only in their fecklessness.    

Mike, a small-town New Jersey lawyer, shares a modest professional building with Stephen.  Their building's boiler clanks and bangs in such an ominous manner as to suggest an explosion is iminent.   Stephen's suggestion?  Instead of an expensive furnace replacement, buying some plastic to put over their legal files stacked haphazardly in the basement.   It's a course of action with which our man Mike readily agrees, given the perilous state of his professional and personal finances.  It's likely one of many stop-gap measures he has been taking to keep his family and business above water.  

Mike represents an elderly man, Leo (Burt Young), who's in the early stages of dementia.   Since there is no one to take care of him, the state of New Jersey wants to put Leo in a rest home, despite the fact that he has plenty of money and wants to stay in his own home.  And here we have the situation of the basically good man tempted to do the wrong thing when faced with a crisis.   Mike gives in to the temptation.   He assures the court that he can function as Leo's guardian - the implication being that he will take care of Leo as he lives in his own home.   Instead, Mike takes the $1500 a month comission for being Leo's guardian and parks him in a rest home.    

Mike's plan works for only a short time until a complication arrives in the form of Kyle, Leo's grandson.  Kyle, still of high school age, has fled his home in Ohio, where his troubled mother is in rehab.   Mike allows Kyle a visit with his grandfather, assures him that the court dictated Leo's living situation and packs him off back to Ohio.  Except Kyle doesn't go.  Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), reluctantly take in Kyle until they can reach his mother.   

Kyle is played by newcomer Alex Shaffer.   Director McCarthy auditioned boys for wrestling skills first and acting ability second and it was probably a wise move.  The fluid moves of a skilled wrestler might be harder to pull off than the limited expressive range to which so many teenage boys confine themselves.  Mr. Shaffer, whose short, dark hair is altered to a bleachy mop for the role of Kyle, is a former state champion wrestler in New Jersey (McCarthy is a former high school wrestler himself).   His skill certainly lends a welcome authenticity to the wrestling sequences, much as he brings an athlete's focus and assurance to his acting.         

The strength of Mr. McCarthy's first three films has been the quality of their characterization. Perhaps this has something to do with nearly 20 years of work as a film and television actor (Both he and Amy Ryan acted in The Wire). Whether informed by that experience or not, he writes not just shiny crescents of characters, but those fully rounded with dark sides included. He has also chosen his leads very judiciously. Peter Dinklage and Richard Jenkins were excellent in The Station Agent and The Visitor, respectivley. Paul Giamatti is certainly no exception here. Win Win is not only built around the Mike Flagerty's moral dilemma, it's grounded by Giamatti's rumpled, ample humanity.

Resistance is futile.   Bobby Cannavale as Terry Delfino in Win Win.
McCarthy vet Bobby Cannavale is also on hand as Mike Flaherty's best friend,  Terry.   As with The Station Agent, Cannavale plays a puppy dog of a character in Win Win.   Instead of the irrreperssible hot dog vendor he played in McCarthy's first film, he's aged with his characters, now a divorced man, by his own admission going a bit crazy, sitting around his tony condo playing Wii golf or surveilling his ex-wife, whom he imagines immersed in some sort of porn film existence with the contractor he hired to build the house he's vacated (he seems particularly obsessed with the usurper's tool belt).   Desperate for distraction, he lobbies Mike for an assistant coaching position.   As he makes his case he says, "I'm fun.  There's no denying that."  Applied to both Terry and Bobby Cannavale, it's a true enough statement.
The writer/director's feel for character has extended beyond the men at the center of his three films.   In The Station Agent, Patricia Clarkson (and to a lesser degree, Michelle Williams) is given a role every bit as rich as that of lead Peter Dinklage.  Much the same can be said for the wife and mother of the Syrian immigrant that Richard Jenkins' Walter Vale tries to help in The Visitor.  With Win Win, it's Mike Flaherty's wife, Jackie, as played by Amy Ryan.  

Early in the film both she and her mother hector Mike about taking on the guardianship of Leo.   In a lesser film, Jackie might be little more than that, the nemesis of a hen-pecked husband who's just looking for a little peace.  With Win Win, we find out that her fierceness is backed up by an almost endless reservoir of sympathy.  She turns out to be the moral center of the family and in Amy Ryan's hands she might be the film's most sympathetic character.   This is someone you want on your side, a Jersey girl of whom the state can actually be proud.

There is, however, a disturbing if perfectly logical affection for Bon Jovi.  As Jackie and Kyle talk on one occasion and compare tattoos, she explains that the JBJ on her ankle is an homage to the band's namesake.  McCarthy follows the exchange with a blast of Bon Jovi's "Have a Nice Day."  For the musically sensitive among us, the closing credits cleanse the palate with a new song by The National, "Think You Can Wait."  

Kyle turns out to be something of a teenage ronin, wandering into town and practically carrying the lowly Pioneers on his back.   When coach Mike sees Kyle's prowess on the mats and finds out that he was a state champion back in Ohio, he's all too happy to enroll Kyle at the school.  With his almost automatic win each time out and the inspiration he provides to the team, they actually win a wrestling meet.  Kyle's protege, Stemler (David Thompson), perhaps gangliest of the Pioneers, seals the victory, not with a rousing pin, but by avoiding too disastrous a loss.   So, for a time, all is well.  

Enter the troubled mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey).   She appears in town unannounced and expresses a desire to take both Kyle and her father, Leo, back home to Ohio.  Kyle has clearly had his fill of his mother's broken promises and wants nothing more to do with her.   Any pretense of humility is quickly dropped, and it's soon clear that Cindy wants the care of her father only so she can get to his money.   The problem for all concerned is that her lawyer makes her aware of Mike's wrongdoing.   The major shortcoming of Win Win is the role of Cindy, both Ms. Lynskey's miscasting in the role and the relatively graceful exit she makes just as all seems lost.   

Mike makes an impassioned speech to Kyle before his state quarterfinal match, "Remember, this is your place! This is your place!  You control it!  Remember?"  This not only to inspire Kyle, but to help him put his mother temporarily out of his mind.   And then, to the story's credit, Kyle goes out and responds like a teenage boy probably would in the midst of that emotional tumult.   

In each of Thomas McCarthy's films, men are drawn out of themselves (this mainly the case with The Station Agent and The Visitor), or made to face who they are.  Of course, there's contrivance involved.  Such is the case with any story.  But McCarthy's stories and characters resonate in a way that much higher concept work - Black Swan and Certified Copy come quickly to mind as recent examples - do not.  The tone is relatively upbeat at the conclusion of Win Win.  But like all of writer/director's main characters to this point, there's not so much a happy ending as a point of greater awareness.   In the case of Mike Flaherty, it's a realization that humility and hard work, not a financial short-cut, is the answer to his problem.  

McCarthy has essentially said that he considers this his most accessible film, the one to please the most people.  Here's hoping he gets the audience he deserves.    



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