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October 6, 2011 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

Win Win

Tom McCarthy’s third film Win Win begins with protagonist Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) jogging. It then cuts to an exchange between his wife and daughter. The six year old asks her mother (Amy Ryan) “Where’s Dad?” to which she replies “Running.” The little girl then inquires “From what?” This dialogue is emblematic of the way McCarthy navigates the thin line between awful indie-film clichés and poignancy. Even though in this particular scene he fails (nobody could pull off lines that cringe-worthy) for the most part, he is successful at crafting a film that—like his earlier work—is greater than the sum of its parts.
Flaherty is having a mid-life crisis. He works at a failing law firm and coaches a failing high school wrestling team. A series of quirky events leads to troubled young man Kyle ending up on his doorstep. Kyle turns out to be a wrestling superstar. Through Kyle, Flaherty is able to find professional and personal fulfilment and learn a little about himself.
On paper this sounds like the kind of routine film that would relish the kind of pseudo-profoundness that made the opening lines such groaners. In the same way, McCarthy’s second film The Visitor might have seemed like a message-focused liberal guilt film. However he elevates both pictures above their trite premises with the love that he clearly has for his characters and the brilliant performances he gets from his actors.
Win Win is populated by characters that are essentially good. When the boy’s mother (played by increasingly impressive Kiwi Melanie Lynskey) shows up, she plays the antagonist role that the script requires and is certainly the hardest character to like. However, she brings such a credible vulnerability and the impression of a fully fleshed-out past to the role that she doesn’t feel like a contradiction in this world. This feeling that the characters exist beyond the confines of the story is what promotes them beyond the broad strokes with which they are often painted and is a testament to McCarthy and his cast. Giamatti is a satisfactory inheritor of the legacy of past McCarthy-protagonists Peter Dinklage and Richard Jenkins but Ryan gives the most impressive performance here as a woman who can’t help but care for Kyle. Her presence aptly illustrates why this film works so much better than it should.


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