Review: Win Win (2011)

DIRECTOR: Thomas McCarthy.

CAST: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Nina Arianda, David Thompson, Clare Foley.

SYNOPSIS: Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) supports his young, New Jersey family and wife Jackie (Ryan) by working as a lawyer and school wrestling coach. With his law firm seeing little commission and a tempting financial offer on the horizon, Mike finds himself at the heart of dementia-stricken client Leo Poplar’s (Young) domestic affairs, with troubled teenage grandson Kyle (Shaffer) having just arrived on Leo’s doorstep. Mike takes Kyle under his wing, strengthening his self-image once again through wrestling, until his drug-addicted mother (Lynskey) arrives on the scene, disturbing the peace.

Giamatti’s Mike may be described as a “pillar of the community”, but don’t let this dupe you into thinking he plays the simple, downtrodden everyman here. His character is extremely accessible and amongst a lot of lighthearted humour there are moments of real despair and strength, once again showcasing what a vast range the actor can play over.

Complimenting him, the debut of Alex Shaffer as Kyle is an extremely interesting one. Any apprehensions of this being a one-note performance are quickly squashed and he more than holds his own opposite his Academy Award nominated co-stars. Shaffer was a successful high school wrestler before winning the role, giving a far more realistic and impressive feel to the film’s more sport-heavy final third. Kyle tells Mike how his wrestling style is “my own” and Shaffer’s acting style definitely reflects this, never being showy, but somehow always remaining the very intriguing and watchable centre of the piece.

Giamatti and Shaffer’s support boasts some fantastic performances, with Amy Ryan never going overboard as mother-you-wouldn’t-want-to-mess-with Jackie, adding another pitch perfect performance to her impressive career. With a brilliant ear for accents, as seen in Boston-set Gone Baby Gone, Ryan’s New Jersey twang never becomes caricature or distracting. Her initial wariness of Kyle slowly softens and the two share a very sweet little scene in a supermarket, even if we don’t see as much of Ryan in this film as perhaps wanted.

With McCarthy more than capable of using realism over heavily edited set pieces, he uses veterans Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale to the best effect, the humour being at its most satisfying when appearing unintentional. However, the latter third of the film verges towards farcical and the humour, at times, feels more forced than the organic material from earlier parts.

Other comic relief comes from Nina Arianda as Mike’s secretary Shelly and the wonderful Clare Foley who plays Mike and Jackie’s young daughter and relishes in having Kyle around as an older brother of sorts. Kyle’s sidekick Stemler (David Thompson) can all too easily be referred to as the ‘Christopher Mintz-Plasse’ character of the film, using nerdy one-liners and often being the butt of the joke, but this is again where choosing wrestlers over actors pays off, with Stemler feeling a lot more accessible than McLovin.

From the opening jogging sequence, it would be very easy to assume this film belongs under the heading ‘underdog story’. Our introduction to Mike oozes indie, reminding us of Michael Cera’s leit motif in Juno, but McCarthy’s film is much more than that. It just never fully establishes exactly what type of film it wants to be. The ending feels too easy, too perfect and the audience are left feeling confused as to where each character has ended up. The final line, delivered by Mike, even borders on the cheesy, being a complete contradiction to the rest of the film where moments of sentimentality could have been overindulged in, but instead were handled in a very genuine way.

As disappointing as the ending may be, this shouldn’t take away from a very entertaining little film with a standout debut from Alex Shaffer. With other actors, McCarthy’s film could easily have felt slow, drawn-out and uneventful, but with the caliber of actor he is able to attract it becomes an honest portrayal of a family’s financial and moral struggle, even if it opts out of a complicated conclusion.

VERDICT: 3/5

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