Review: Win Win (2011)


Director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) is interested in the American family. He's especially interested in the families that we create ourselves rather than are born into, though those play a role as well. One could say that McCarthy is interested in community, but I think that the relations that he highlights here go beyond the kind of broader issues of living in community, and instead how we are to relate to each other in a closer, deeper bond. Perhaps McCarthy's most important work is exploring the line between family and community, and how it is not as clear or bold as we might think. In The Station Agent McCarthy contrasted the value of community against Fin's desire to be left alone. In The Visitor Walter finds himself drawn into the lives of people whom he never intended to meet, newcomers to America. In Win Win the responsibilities and pressures of family and community clash for Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a middle-class lawyer struggling to keep his practice together with his hapless partner Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), while raising a young family with his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). When the opportunity for Mike to make some money arises, he agrees to act as an aging client's guardian. But when the client's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives in town to stay with his grandfather during his mother's rehab, the responsibility falls on Mike to look after him.

Mike already has plenty of responsibilities. He and Vig both volunteer as wrestling coaches at the local high school, and Mike is also the primary emotional support for his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale acting as broad comic relief). But when Kyle tags along to wrestling practice and reveals a hitherto unrevealed talent for amateur wrestling, the possibilities for both troubled teen and flailing adult to find a measure of control of their lives emerges.

Of course, when Kye's mom returns from rehab to claim both her son and father - particularly her father's money - trouble ensues. However, McCarthy's screenplay manages to avoid the quirkiness and affectation of so many American indie films, while it also avoids wallowing in sorrow and miserabalism: a fine line to walk. Mike's dilemma is how to do the right thing after initially pursuing selfishness.

As an exploration of the life of the American middle-class, Win Win succeeds admirably. Kyle says to Mike that when he wrestles he feels good because he is in control. Control is something Mike can sympathize with, since whether in terms of finances or personal life, it's something that one can easily lose. Wrestling is not so much a metaphor, but a literal outlet for both characters. As the Flaherty family grows to care for Kyle as their own the film raises questions about the relationship between the American middle-class and lower-class. Like The Visitor before it, though less obviously, Win Win is a political film, but not in terms of right/left, or Democrat/Republican, but in terms of person to person. It's the politics of relationships, of family, and how we relate to others.

McCarthy isn't just a screenwriter. He is a competent filmmaker, with solid camera work and a good ear for music. (The National provide a new song for the film, "Think You Can Wait"). McCarthy manages to pack an exploration of complex themes into a fairly unassuming film. He makes it look easy, as do Giamatti and his co-stars. That might end up being Win Win's fate, overlooked because it doesn't seem very complex or difficult. But it is a funny, moving film, lacking in pretension. Win Win is another quality exploration of communities and families in America by an underrated American filmmaker.

8 out of 10

Win Win (2011)

Directed by Tom McCarthy; written by Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni; starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale, and Alex Shaffer.