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Mike Flaherty is a good guy, really he is.  He’s madly in love with his wife and kids, lives in a nice house in New Jersey, tries to keep fit and coaches the local high school wrestling team.  Mike’s also a lawyer with a practice of his own that is sinking fast.  It’s a tough economy.  The entire world is feeling the financial pinch.  Business isn’t exactly busting down Mike’s squeaking door and so his office must do without such amenities as a working copier and boiler.  One of Mike’s few clients, Leo, is too senile to look after himself without constant care, but incapacitated though he may be, Leo is vehemently opposed to leaving his beloved home for a nursing facility.  A wild idea enters Mike’s mind wherein he takes up full guardianship of Leo, promising a judge that he’ll personally provide the care needed to keep his client in his house, but instead places the confused man in a convalescent home, all the while collecting the monthly checks meant to pay for Leo’s welfare.  The old man’s only known relative is a wastrel who no one can locate and the extra money coming in will surely be put to good use, so where’s the downside?  Out of a clear, blue sky, almost like a tattooed, bleached blonde Jiminy Cricket, Kyle lands on Leo’s doorstep claiming to be the grandson Leo never met.  Forced to think on his feet, Mike tells the teenager that his granddad was ordered to live in the nursing facility and offers to take in the boy, figuring that his having no reason to stay in town since Leo’s in the home will surely make for a very short visit.  The sad story of Kyle’s negligent upbringing unfolds and neither Mike nor his no-nonsense wife, Jackie can bear to just let the boy slip away into the unknown.  When Kyle accompanies Mike to his hopeless team of wrestlers, a hidden talent is revealed that gives Mike even more of a reason to keep the kid around.  Everything seems rosy in the newly extended Flaherty home until that wastrel child of Leo’s, Kyle’s mother, comes to town with questions.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has a rare talent for taking seemingly simple stories of loners and the disaffected and showing us the joy of simple human contact.  His first feature, 2003‘s The Station Agent, presented a disparate group of people coming together around a sullen, unusual hero possessed of an odd inheritance.  In McCarthy’s second film, the world of the lonely protagonist in 2007’s The Visitor was turned upside down and made bigger when he opened his door to some strangers in need.  Win Win’s Kyle is another loner, abused and abandoned, expecting nothing from anyone which is why the trust he places in Mike is so touching and fragile.  His life with the Flahertys is the first semblance of a family he’s ever known and despite Jackie’s initial suspicions over his Nancy Spungen-esque style cues (or Eminem as she sees it); they come to adore the sweet, thoughtful boy, making Mike’s betrayal of Kyle’s grandfather fester all the more.

Besides being a wonderful character study, Win Win is very, very funny.  McCarthy, along with co-writer Joe Tibroni have a great sense of where the laughs belong and whether to play it softly (Mike’s secret anxiety smokes and Jackie’s confession to Kyle about her own tattoo, inspired by a certain Jersey icon.) or broader (Some of the more unfortunate wrestlers on the team and basically every scene involving Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend, particularly his “man-blanket” emergency measure and coaching techniques.) Win Win never becomes maudlin or saccharine, but combines real feeling with the perfect amount of homey wit.

One would be tempted to ask Paul Giamatti to be a good egg and give somebody else a chance at the poor schlub roles, but he’s just too good at them.  Giamatti conveys the middle-aged lawyer struggling to keep his family’s collective head above water as a man always half a step (- or less)  away from a panic attack.  When the crazy scheme to gyp Leo out of his money is hatched, one can instantly see the regret in Mike’s eyes; this is the most devious thing he’s ever done and he’s totally unprepared for the snowball effect of lies he must to tell to cover up the initial scam.  As I mentioned, the excellent Bobby Cannavale is Mike’s oldest pal, Terry, an aimless wreck since his divorce who finds way too much distraction assistant-coaching Mike’s team.  New Jersey native Alex Shaffer makes a memorable film debut, playing the slacker-looking Kyle with a heartbreaking sweetness.  Jeffrey Tambor (- Who also appears in this week’s other big feature, Paul.) provides more comic relief as the first assistant coach who’s now locked in a passive-aggressive battle for dominance against the loud, showy Terry.  Amy Ryan gives a stunning turn as Mike’s wife Jackie, who really understands him better than he does himself.  Jackie is a lioness protecting all her cubs with a withering ferocity, including her newly-acquired one in Kyle.  One wonders if a punch from this ferocious parent would hurt as much as her hollow-tipped verbal bullets.

Win Win earns its title as a genuinely warm film that surprises and delights with humour, intelligence and perfect performances from all its cast.  The real winner is the audience lucky enough to catch this gem.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 17th, 2011

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Fox Searchlight)

 

Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer & Thomas McCarthy, NYC 2011

Amy Ryan, NYC 2011

Thomas McCarthy & co/writer Joe Tibroni, NYC 2011

 

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