' Cinema Romantico: Win Win

Monday, April 04, 2011

Win Win

Life is just full of......like......stuff. Going to get the groceries. A boiler that won't work. A toilet that won't flush. That pesky tree in the front yard that needs to come down. An older relative or friend who needs checking up on. Bills. Dear God, the bills. It all adds up, you know, bit by bit, little by little. You never sensed you were even submerged and now you're drowning. All these things have begun adding up on Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a family man in New Jersey married to Jackie (Amy Ryan) with two daughters in tow. He is a lawyer with a practice that caters mainly to senior citizens. On the side he coaches wrestling at the local high school. He has started to run as means to work out his stress which is on account of his law practice slowly slipping into the red.


But an opportunity presents itself. Eh, sort of. Leo Poplar (Burt Young), mired in the early stages of dementia, is set to be placed in a home by the state, something he decidedly does not want, until Mike selflessly steps in and advises he will act as Leo's legal guardian so the old man can stay in his real home. Well, this is what Mike tells the judge anyway. In reality, he places Leo in a home anyway, claiming this is was court appointed, and collects the $1500 for being legal guardian which can help to keep him afloat.

More plot develops. Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), arrives. He has run away from home in Ohio where his flighty mother (Melanie Lynskey) has just entered drug rehab to stay with his grandfather. But with the house empty Mike and Jackie agree to take Kyle in. They enroll him in school. Mike lets him practice with the wrestling team. Turns out Kyle is, and was, one heck of a wrestler. Quickly he will climb the ranks, on a collision course with the State Finals. But, of course, Kyle's mother will eventually have to make a nerve-jangling visit just as Mike's monetary jig will eventually have to be up.

It might sound a bit formulaic but those familiar with writer/director Tom McCarthy's previous two films, "The Station Agent" and The Visitor", know McCarthy's formula consistently renders perfect small batch cinematic craft ales. There are few filmmakers who pay such close attention to their characters and so willingly give them space to live and breathe.

Consider Mike's best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale). He's just divorced. He doesn't want to be alone. He kinda worms his way into being Terry's assistant coach. So many supporting characters just exist within the main character's orbit but both the writing and Cannavale allow us to sense that Terry exists completely outside of the times he is just onscreen. Shaffer turns Kyle into one of the most realistic teenagers in a recent movie. His line readings are terse monotone. "Yeah." "Okay." "I guess." He is polite and genuine. Unassumingly, he inspires his fellow wrestler, the utterly hapless Stemler. But his insecurities linger just below the surface and when they emerge they are jarring but not unconvincing because the core of the character remains the same. Jackie, too, is allowed to be so much more than merely The Supportive Spouse. She challenges her husband with the best intentions, and she challenges Kyle too. She got's an edge but in a nice way. Of course, she does, she's a Jersey Girl. (Even if she's a Jon Bon Jovi Jersey Girl, but never mind.)


And the film's language is everyday poetry. Watch the first scene closely and the recurrence of the word "shit." Finally, a curse word not just for cursing's sake! It's brilliant. Mother to Daughter to Dad, cleverly, quietly, illustrating where habits come from. And consider this exchange between Kyle and Jackie. "If I need to smoke, should I smoke outside?" - "You shouldn't smoke." - "I know." - "But if you need to, yes, smoke outside." There is understanding, not judgement, but infused with that loveable parental scorn.

Paul Giamatti, meanwhile, seems to have reached a point where his own persona seamlessly fuses with whatever person he is playing. Mike Flaherty is flawed but good willed. Initially I wondered if "Win Win" let Mike off too easy. What he does, the reason he does it, while being understandable from a specific point of view is also, in many ways, unforgivable. But you know what? People with the best intentions, with the kindest of hearts, make unforgivable decisions every now and then. It's pretty much unavoidable. And Mike is a person deserving of forgiveness. Not because he asks for it or requires it but because he earns it through his actions, with his wife, his daughter, his sudden surrogate son, his friends. They don't make movies much anymore about plain old nice guys. Everyone's gotta have two tons of baggage, an existential crisis, so on, so forth. Mike is a nice guy with a good family trying to do right by them which, as I think we can all attest to, is not anywhere as close to as easy as it sounds.

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