SXSW Film Review: ‘Win Win’

SXSW Film Review: ‘Win Win’

Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan give wonderful performances in this charming film about family and the unexpected detours that life throws our way sometimes. Director Thomas McCarthy has previously brought us the wonderfully quirky The Station Agent (2003) and the touching film The Visitor (2007). If there is one thing that he excels at, it is showing us that some of the most profound relationships blossom from the most surprising circumstances.

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an attorney who is barely scraping by. Rather than choose a lucrative position, he works in a dingy no-frills office protecting the elderly and indigent. His furnace is threatening to explode, and his office-mate Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) doesn’t have any money, either.  They both volunteer time to the local high school wrestling team as coaches. To say the team is terrible is an understatement.

Mike suffers a massive panic attack (certainly the most hilarious I’ve seen on screen) and decides something must be done. His wife has no idea how dire things are, and out of desperation, he makes a really poor decision. Mike tells the state that he will become the legal guardian of his client Leo (Burt Young) so that he can carry out the man’s wishes to remain in his own home.

Mike promptly puts Leo in the local old folks home and pockets the monthly fees that he is supposed to use to care for the man. Besides being completely unethical and illegal, this sets up a string of events that will change his life forever.

It ends up Leo’s estranged grandson Kyle has come to live with him. Since Leo doesn’t live in his home, Mike and his wife spot Kyle sitting on Leo’s front porch. Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) is torn between being suspicious of the young man (who is tattooed, smokes, and sports platinum blond dyed hair) and letting her motherly instincts get the best of her.

Ryan really shines in the role as we see her soft side turn on a dime whenever her family is threatened. When she finds out that Kyle’s mother has completely abandoned him, she goes into full-blown pitbull mode.

Of course Kyle ends up staying with the Flahertys, and Mike is beside himself when he finds out that their new guest was a star wrestler at his old school.  What are the chances? So Kyle rediscovers his love of wrestler, the team finally gets a leader, and Kyle thrives under the care of the Flaherty family, perhaps forming the first authentic relationship(s) he has ever had.

Kyle’s unscrupulous mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up sniffing around for her father’s money, and crying crocodile tears about her beloved son. Will Kyle go back to her?  Can he trust Mike ever again when he find out how Mike betrayed Leo?

The film plays out a little conventional, but the excellent acting elevates this film from the ordinary. In addition to Giamatti and Ryan, newcomer Alex Shaffer puts in an effortless performance as Kyle. I’m not sure whether he is acting well, or just being a typical teenage boy, but it works well for this film. McCarthy has a knack for coaxing the best from his actors.

Bobby Canavale is terrific as Mike’s sidekick Terry. He steals every scene that he is in. His man-crush on Kyle is played for laughs (not in a weird or creepy way). Terry and Mike relive their wrestling days when the team finally starts showing some spirit.  This is every bit an underdog/sports movie as it is a relationship drama.  Though it is disarming  to see a bunch of guys running around in singlets for most of the movie.

Win Win is a bit too long for my taste. I wish it would have been about 15 minutes shorter. However, it is a worthy companion piece to McCarthy’s earlier works, and how often do you find a sports minded movie for the indie crowd?