Review: Win Win


Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Written by:Thomas McCarthy, Joe Tiboni
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambour, Burt Young, Alex Shaffer
Released: August 18, 2011
Grade: A-

Often seen with multiple chins, a receding hairline and a stressed disposition, I have to ask the question - is there anyone who can play an “ordinary guy” better than Paul Giamatti?  I’m scratching my head and struggling to think of an answer.  Giamatti’s performances in films such as Barney’s Version, Sideways and American Splendor showcase his often underrated talent.  He’s so “real” that it often looks like those around him are acting.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise but Win Win again proves just how amazing Paul Giamatti can be.  He plays Mike Flaherty, a father of two with a struggling legal practice in New Jersey.  He can’t afford to fix the broken boiler at work and he can’t afford to pay his family’s health insurance premiums at home.  Times are tough and he’s running out of options.

In an act of desperation, Mike decides to take an advantage of a wealthy client.  Leo Poplar (Young) is an elderly man suffering from the early stages of dementia.  With no immediate family to take care of him, the courts wish to remove Leo from his home and place him in an aged care facility.

Mike pleads with the judge that he be appointed Leo’s guardian so that he can personally take care of him.  It may look like a heartfelt gesture but it’s anything but.  Mike’s only interested in the stipend of $1,500 per month that he’ll receive in his capacity as guardian.  After the judge grants his request, Mike absolves himself of any responsibility.  He places Leo in the Oak Knoll senior home and waits for the cheques to roll in.      

When a teenager arrives in town proclaiming to be Leo’s grandson, Mike’s problems are further complicated.  His name is Kyle (Shaffer) and he’s hoping to live with his grandfather having fled from his drug-addicted mother in Ohio.  Not wanting Kyle to ask many questions about Leo’s living situation, Mike invites him to stay with his family.  He can sleep in a makeshift bedroom set up in the basement and visit Leo at the home whenever he likes.

It doesn’t take long for Kyle to start bonding with Mike and his family.  He enrols at the local high school and he joins a wrestling team coached by Mike and two of his best friends.  The team is hopeless but it turns out that Kyle is a superstar!  He was once a top ranked wrestler but gave it away after being suspended at his previous school.

Mike’s financial burdens have eased and his wrestling team is improving.  Mike’s wife (Ryan) enjoys having a teenage boy around the house.  Leo appears to be content at the aged care home.  Kyle is making new friends and is on track to nab a college scholarship.  Is it possible that Mike’s horribly selfish act started a series of events that will be a “win win” for everyone?

I loved this complex story and the way it revolves around the wonderful performance of Paul Giamatti.  He portrays Mike Flaherty as a flawed human being but perhaps that’s why he’s so easy to relate to.  Sometimes we do dumb things to protect ourselves and those we love.  Does that necessarily make us bad people?  It’s a thought worth pondering for those who have seen the film.

Also making an impact on screen is Alex Shaffer as Kyle.  Often when it comes to casting, the producers will find a great actor and then adapt them to the specifics of the role (e.g. Natalie Portman learning how to dance in Black Swan).  It was the reverse in this instance.  Shaffer was already a high school wrestling champion but had no previous acting experience.  You wouldn’t realise it though from his humorous performance as the troubled teenager.

There are a few too many characters (such as Jeffrey Tambour and Bobby Cannavale as the assistant wrestling coaches) and the rushed ending felt a little out of place but aside from those minor qualms, this is an excellent movie.