Friday, 23 September 2011

Film Review: Win Win

Well-meaning family man, lawyer and part-time high-school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is struggling under the economic recession. Unable to tell his loving wife Jackie (Ryan) that he's failing to make ends meet and fed up by the unfairness of it all, Mike sneakily takes on the guardianship of wealthy but demented client, Leo (Young), when he discovers his estate will pay $1,500 a month to the legal guardian. Leo wishes to stay at home, but Mike double-crosses his client and sticks him in a nursing home while pocketing the monthly commission. Suddenly Leo's grandson, Kyle (Shaffer), arrives in town who also happens to be a champion teen-wrestler. When Kyle begins wrestling for Mike's high-school team he thinks himself in a win win situation, that is until the lies, responsibilities and guilt begin to unravel.

There was always the risk that the wrestling element in Win Win could turn it into your stereotypical sports final showdown cliche by the third act, and while there is a 'big match', it is dealt with in such an unconventional way vis-a-vis Hollywood that it doesn't fall foul of the same traps. While all the elements for a cliched comedy sports drama are here (illegal trusteeships, a sucky sports team, gregarious coaches, substance abusing mothers and the main character's misdeeds unravelled), Win Win deals with these issues with humility and poise. It is this which makes it endearing more than anything, the very plausible, honest and authentic aura its characters and screenplay effuse.

Indeed, this is a very human story about a man presented with an unethical opportunity, also walking a familiar path of normal lives being interrupted by strangers. As Mike tries to conceal his actions things inevitably get complicated and more cracks begin to appear in his web of lies. However it is writer and director Tom McCarthy's deep, multilayered characters which make this particularly enthralling. All feel real to the point where these people could just as easily be you and me. As a consequence it is doubly fascinating to watch them deal with events as they unfold. Would you do the same? Realistically, you probably would too. It is this which provides Win Win's hook - realistic characters which bring gravitas to proceedings and can easily relate to.

Giamatti is excellent as stressed family man who means well but just seems to stray from the straight and narrow when he decides he's had enough playing by the rules. Shaffer is the real showstopper however, effortlessly convincing and so natural as your typical American teenager that you wonder if he's just being himself (he was actually a very successful high-school wrestler in real life as well!). The supporting cast is also excellent, Mike's best friend, Terry (Cannavale), dealing with a divorce is superb and Jeffrey Tambor as Mike's accountant and assistant wrestling coach dourly droll as usual. Likewise, it's always a pleasure to see Burt Young in action showing what a good actor he is, too often remembered only for Paulie in Rocky. Perhaps the only role that seemed underdeveloped is that of Cindy (Lynskey), Kyle's mother. She seems strangely out of place but then that may be because you won't be able to look at her as anyone other than Rose from Two and a Half Men.

Frustratingly though everything is wrapped up a little too neatly and unambiguously by the end, but it compensates by taking the interesting route to get there which makes it all the more engrossing. What's most appealing is that it doesn't try to trick you with any cheap emotive techniques. While Win Win is a warm, heartfelt film, it maintains a tough backbone meaning it never gets too sappy. Certainly it lives up to its description as a comedy, but never in a scripted, gag-reel kind of way. This, coupled with its genuineness firmly puts this down as a win in my book.