4 stars; Rated R
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatii) is an okay guy who does a rotten thing.
He's a struggling New Jersey lawyer and the coach of a pretty bad high-school wrestling team. He has a nice wife (Amy Ryan) and two sweet little girls. Money is tight. Not desperate, but tight enough, apparently, for Mike to rationalize doing the rotten thing.
In court to represent an old guy named Leo (Burt Young), Mike convinces the judge to appoint him Leo's guardian, explaining that he just wants the gent to be able to keep living in his own house.
In fact, Mike wants the $1,500 monthly stipend, but not the extra work. After court, he places Leo in a local nursing home – paid for from Leo's estate funds – and pockets the monthly $1,500.
Win Win follows Mike, his family, his dour assistant coach Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and his energetic pal Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale) over the next few weeks. Life proceeds pretty close to routine until Leo's teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up out of the blue to stay with his grandpa while his mom goes through rehab. Turns out the high school age kid is an excellent wrestler. What a coincidence.
The plot sounds contrived ... well, it is contrived, but it works because the rotten thing Mike is doing hangs in the air over the comedy and the quirkiness, the whimsy and the drama.
Mike is screwing over sweet old Leo and taking advantage of the kid to strengthen the wrestling team. Does he care about Leo and Kyle? Sure, but not enough to stop doing what he's doing. That added layer adds a sense of tension to the proceedings that nicely tempers the sitcom trappings.
Tom McCarthy is the director and writer of Win Win. He's the man behind The Station Agent and The Visitor, two exceptional low-key independent films that also focused on extended/alternate family groups.
McCarthy is adept at creating unusual, engaging characters and getting great character actors to play them. Did you catch the names of the cast here? Paul Giamatti (John Adams, Sideways, American Splendor), Amy Ryan (The Office, Gone Baby Gone), Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent), Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show), Burt Young (Rocky). Talk about your indie all-stars.
You won't recognize the name of the kid who plays the kid, Alex Shaffer. He's the real deal, a non-actor high school wrestler who successfully auditioned for the role. Shaffer is a natural, but his hair isn't – that bleached blond mop happened when all the guys on his real-life team, facing a big match, decided that dying their hair would psych out the other team.
I cared about the somber-faced teenager and hoped he wouldn't be hurt too badly by the inevitable reveal of the rotten thing Mike was doing to his grandpa. I loved witnessing Mike's pal Terry behave like an overgrown freshman around Kyle and the wrestling team. Watching Amy Ryan add texture to her character was a treat and I even appreciated Jeffrey Tambor – over the years I've grown tired of his bratty performances, but McCarthy uses his pissiness well, milking laughs from the assistant coach's jealous reaction when Terry usurps his authority.
There's a lot of low-key pleasure to be had in Win Win. As with Tom McCarthy's other works, its delivers satisfying measures of humor, hurt and humanity.