Wrestling to find a life of integrity
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, March 25, 2011
Who needs Wallace Beery when you have Paul Giamatti?
Beery, cinemaniacs will recall, was the protagonist of the big-studio wrestling picture that drove a screenwriter crazy in the Coen Brothers' Depression-era showbiz satire "Barton Fink." Giamatti stars in a wrestling picture that reinvigorates the genre with verve, warmth and heart. "Win Win," from note-perfect writer-director Tom McCarthy, couldn't be further from the sort of craven, assembly-line Hollywood products the Coens bemoaned. But in spirit, and sheer joie de vivre, it's everything the movie business should aspire to. "Win Win" exemplifies movies the way they oughtta be.
Let it be noted: Unlike Beery, Giamatti doesn't portray an actual wrestler in "Win Win." His character, a lawyer named Mike Flaherty, coaches his suburban New Jersey high school team, whose losing streak pretty much parallels Mike's life in general. At the helm of an unspectacular elder-law practice, Mike keeps his financial worries a secret from his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two young daughters, but the burdens are getting to him. During a court proceeding one day, he makes a sharp ethical turn with a senile client (Burt Young) that will lead him down a road as fraught with peril as it is paved with unexpected riches.
One of those surprises comes in the form of his client's grandson, a diffident teenager named Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who arrives out of the blue (okay, from Ohio) and begins to take his place in Mike's private universe of misfit friends, who include the recently divorced, deeply needy Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and his co-coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor). Kyle is withdrawn and clearly troubled, but as Mike gets to know him the two bond in surprising and utterly cheering ways that allow "Win Win" to live up to its title both literally and emotionally.
It's not that the plot of "Win Win" is so original (McCarthy co-wrote the movie with his childhood buddy/wrestling teammate - and elder-care lawyer - Joe Tiboni). But, think about it: When was the last time you saw an uplifting family comedy about an elder-care lawyer and high school wrestling? Rather, it's the small, completely authentic moments of humor and connection that McCarthy conveys with such unerring ease, from the way little Abby Flaherty impeccably imitates Jackie muttering a mild obscenity to the following interaction moments later: "Where's Daddy?" "Running." "From what?"
Ah, Abby, if you only knew. In Mike Flaherty, Giamatti has found a role that marks a welcome departure from the more saturnine characters he has become famous for playing, most famously in "Sideways" and most recently the narcissistic serial monogamist in "Barney's Version." The twists and turns of "Win Win" may drive Mike to similar extremes as those surly protagonists - or at least his version of them - but McCarthy never points and laughs at Mike's tribulations, just as he never makes suburbia out to be the ridiculous or grotesque allegorical backdrop of so many indie films.
As for newcomer Shaffer - who was a New Jersey state high school wrestling champion in 2010 - McCarthy has made a true discovery. Shaffer's performance resembles Sean Penn's breakout turn in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High": Kyle is a bleach-blond, zoned-out Spicoli with hidden depths. As the wise, tough, sensitive yin to Kyle's yang, Ryan's Jackie is all sharp edges and meltingly soft heart. (Cannavale and Tambor supply antic comic relief.)
The rare, humanist beauty of "Win Win" - like McCarthy's "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor" before it - is that none of its characters is a caricature, none of its plot twists a blatant play for tears or laughs, none of its appeal based on some
mythical lowest common denominator. By depicting and celebrating the simple search for a life of integrity, Mc-Carthy suggests that our common denominator may be higher than we think. He's that rare filmmaker who not only trusts his audience but honors it, by portraying American lives at their most flawed, decent and ethically engaged.