To spend time, even an early coffee-only breakfast, with Tom McCarthy is to laugh. A lot. The actor, recognizable from his roles in the “Meet the Parents” franchise as well as the HBO series “The Wire,” can make the most banal story come to vivid and hilarious life, with a simple inflection or spot-on impression. There’s the time he visited his high school as an alum to discover he shared its Wall of Fame with the drummer from the all-but-forgotten 1970s band Looking Glass and disgraced Enron executive Andrew Fastow, a friend of the McCarthy family. Or the time he had to tell his dad he was turning down his first post-college job offer to summer at Cape Cod with his improv comedy troupe. Or an adolescence spent balancing twin passions for wrestling and Broadway musicals, two worlds he kept scrupulously compartmentalized. He riffs on the chatter while suiting up with his teammates after seeing “Evita” (which he did, for his 13th birthday). “Oh God, LuPone, third act. Amazing. I mean, her instrument!”
But in recounting McCarthy’s tales, you realize how few survive tidy paraphrasing, or even straight quotation. Their beauty lies in the telling. And the same can be said for the movies McCarthy has written and directed since making his debut in 2003 with “The Station Agent.” That movie was about a man with dwarfism, played by Peter Dinklage, who forged an unlikely family circle with a grieving mother and an eagerly puppyish hot dog vendor. “The Visitor” (2007) starred Richard Jenkins as an emotionally paralyzed college professor who finds unlikely friendship — and a love of drumming — with two undocumented immigrants.
With his sharp, affecting comedy “Win Win,” which opens Friday, McCarthy once again explores the ramifications of improbable alliances, in this case between a middle-aged attorney and high school wrestling coach, played by Paul Giamatti, and a teenage loner played by first-time actor Alex Shaffer. Like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” before it, “Win Win” bears the familiar, deeply gratifying earmarks of a Tom McCarthy picture, featuring fully rounded characters who are wholly original without being self-consciously quirky, observed by McCarthy with compassion and a sense of humor that’s never patronizing or glib.
For all the familiar tonal notes it strikes, “Win Win” also marks something of a departure for McCarthy. Unlike Dinklage’s and Jenkins’s characters, Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty “is not an outsider,” McCarthy said during a visit to Washington late last month. “He’s very involved with his life, he’s very involved with his family, he’s very connected.” As “Win Win” opens, the movie depicts Flaherty, an elder-care attorney, living a typical suburban middle-class existence with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. But Mike is beset by financial tensions, and when he makes a split-second decision that could get him disbarred, it sends him hurtling toward short-term rewards but also deep personal and professional danger.
Like the protagonists of “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” before him, “Win Win’s” Mike Flaherty embodies a version of movie manhood that exists outside the usual matrix defined by comic book superheroes on the one hand and hapless schlubs or cynical antiheroes on the other. In a season where Matt Damon is outrunning shadowy existential forces in “The Adjustment Bureau,” where Bradley Cooper takes a pill to assume mental superpowers in “Limitless” and Jake Gyllenhaal will soon have the entire future of Chicago in his hands in the trippy sci-fi thriller “Source Code,” Mike Flaherty makes a small but ethically seismic decision for $1,500. Not exactly the life-and-death stakes by conventional Hollywood standards, but all the more compelling for being so utterly resonant.
“I had some family members who read early drafts of the script, and one of my brothers, a very successful guy, [said], ‘Fifteen hundred? Really? Would a guy do that?’ Well, yeah. Fifteen hundred [dollars] means a lot. It could mean a mortgage. Like, okay, I can take that off the list and focus on the health insurance and other things.”
The question that animates Mike Flaherty throughout “Win Win” may be summed up as: What does it mean to be a good man? Is it to be a good provider, a good lawyer, a good friend or community member? And how does he wake up every morning, balance those roles and finesse their contradictions? In many ways, it’s the same dilemma faced by suburban family man Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers’ 2009 comedy “A Serious Man,” minus the snark, surrealism and preening self-consciousness.
Just as McCarthy refuses to make Mike Flaherty look ridiculous or cynical, he portrays suburbia itself with a refreshing lack of the sarcasm his fellow indie filmmakers too often mistake for sophistication. Set in McCarthy’s real-life home town of New Providence, N.J., “Win Win” doesn’t depict suburbia as some lost Edenic ideal, dark redoubt of hidden perversities or caricature of bourgeois hypocrisy. It’s just a place where people pursue flawed but decent lives.
McCarthy co-wrote “Win Win” with his lifelong friend and wrestling buddy Joe Tiboni, who, as it happens, works as an elder-care attorney in New Providence. Many of the movie’s most pungent details, from Mike’s green ski jacket to the recalcitrant boiler in his office basement, have their roots in Tiboni’s life. “I’d just call and talk to him,” McCarthy said, “and ask, ‘What are burdens for you?’ ” He recalled a lunch with a friend, writer Sarah Vowell, when she shared her theory that by the time writers are ready to reflect on growing up in suburbia, “we’re so removed from it that we’re not really inside it. We almost have to comment in some way.” He set out to get back inside the suburbia of his childhood, “and part of that was just spending time with Joe and reconnecting.”
The result is a movie about a man whose struggles are never depicted as either outsize or petty. “It’s something Paul [Giamatti] and I talked a lot about,” McCarthy said about the actor’s depiction of Mike. “If he were a little bit too far into a dese-dem-and-dose guy, which he can do incredibly well, or be a little bit too animated or a little bit too strong or a little bit too ironic or sardonic, I’d have to be like, ‘You gotta pull it back.’ We kept talking about how to find the straightforwardness of this guy, and the vulnerability. There has to be a strength, but there’s nothing superhuman about it.”
Although he didn’t set out to make a trilogy, McCarthy sees now that “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win,” all about men facing pivotal moments in their lives, “do fit together pretty well. There was this innate sense that I needed to make this movie because it sort of completed something.” He’s percolating ideas for the next film, which will be “a little bit bigger, and a little bit different. . . . But there’s still a man at the heart of it.” And the heart of it, no doubt, will be precisely how we know it’s a Tom McCarthy picture.