It's a family comedy about wrestling, the law, and wrestling with the law. With a stellar cast led by Paul Giamatti, written and directed by onetime actor Tom McCarthy, this film, states Kimberly Gadette, is nothing less than a win-win.
Following in the footsteps of Ron Howard and Rob Reiner, Tom McCarthy is turning into a far more noticeable talent behind than camera than in front of it. While not as famous a thespian as the aforementioned two, McCarthy has been a solid character actor for years, frequently playing morally-shady characters named "Bob" in such films as the Meet the Parents/Fockers franchise, Jack Goes Boating and Mammoth. Yet now, with four superior films to his writing/directing credit (Win Win, The Visitor, The Station Agent, plus a story writing credit on Up), it looks like McCarthy's star is very much on the rise.
Drawing on his own high school days on the wrestling team, and set in his hometown suburbs of New Providence, New Jersey (Long Island, New York standing in as its cinematic substitute), McCarthy shares his story credit with former wrestling buddy and current eldercare lawyer Joe Tiboni, who continues to work and live in New Providence. Perhaps because Tiboni breathes a kind of Win Win air daily, the story is remarkably original. Not that authenticity always makes art: sometimes too much slavish attention to the reality of the setting leaches out the drama. But even as McCarthy and Tiboni address a range of true-to-life issues (economic woes, fractured families, adolescent rage, senile oldsters, health complications brought on by stress), they handle it with such humanity, such natural humor, intermingling the comedy and drama into a perfectly-hued shade of heightened reality ... that their movie is about as good as it gets.
Eldercare lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a stand-up guy who loves his family and would do anything it takes to keep a somewhat precarious roof over their heads. ("Precarious" because of the dying tree in the front yard that's threatening to crash down on the house any moment.) When Mike sees the chance to grab an extra paycheck each month by assuming the role of legal guardian to a senior client (Burt Young's Leo), he takes it. Even though it means he'll be tap-dancing on an ethically-ambiguous line. But seriously, who's it going to hurt? "Other than Leo, who's so addled he won't notice the fact that Mike's not all that attentive of a guardian.
Enter Leo's teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer, in a debut role), on the run from a drugged-out mom and expelled from school. He's in far more need of guardianship than Leo – and suddenly Mike finds himself faced with new dependents and new problems. However, Kyle offers something more attractive than Leo's financial rescue: he's a champion wrestler, and wouldn't you know, Mike just so happens to be coach of the high school team that's been stuck in last place for years. The reversal of fortune couldn't be better. Until life intervenes ...
Led by the spectacular Mr. Giamatti, depicting the epitome of the dogged everyman who valiantly fights anew each day, striving to be the best father, husband, coach, friend, lawyer, boss and ex-smoker he can, the players surrounding him are all superb, both in their individual idiosyncrasies and their selfless sense of ensemble. In no particular order, we are delighted by Mike's sharp-tongued wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) with her still-burning crush on Bon Jovi; crazed best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) who's inappropriately impassioned in numerous ways; befuddled office partner and assistant coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) who knows absolutely nothing about wrestling; Melanie Lynskey's surprise turn as the manipulative mother; and newcomer Alex Shaffer, nailing the angst of a teenage runaway, outwardly shrugging his boyish shoulders at authority while secretly, desperately craving a real home to call his own.
While the comedy can sometimes veer towards the outrageous, it's still based in believable human actions. For example, when Mike's stress attack causes him to collapse on the ground in the middle of a jog, his tall male friend Terry immediately jumps in to attempt a rescue. He ends up on top of Mike, the two of them making a rather obscene tableau in the middle of a nature trail. But it's not slapstick for the sake of silly – it's actually about something.
McCarthy directs as well as he writes: seamlessly, with an eye for keeping the pacing crisp, the laughs flowing and the heart very much intact.
Though this reviewer saw some wonderful comedies at Sundance, Win Win is by far the win win winner.
Rating on a scale of 5 sincere wishes to avoid seeing Jeffrey Tambor in a wrestling singlet: 5
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay by: Tom McCarthy
Story by: Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, Burt Young, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale
Running time: 106 minutes