“Win Win,” written by Thomas McCarthy and Joe Tiboni (story), directed by McCarthy, 106 minutes, rated R.
Unlike any actor working today, Paul Giamatti has developed his own type, and that’s not at all intended to be negative. It’s in the way that Giamatti takes the familiar (characters or even a slice out of your own life) and makes it brand new, that propels him into that top tier of actors.
Plus he also has an eye for promising projects.
In “Win Win,” the latest film from Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”), Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a struggling New Jersey lawyer who volunteers as the local high school wrestling coach, which, as chance would have it, is also struggling.
Broke with a family to support, Mike finds some easy money in becoming the guardian of one of his aging clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), who is entering the early stages of dementia and wants nothing more than to live in his own home.
But in earnest, Mike’s gesture is a con, as he boots the mentally-ailing Leo from his home and places him in an assisted-living facility, while pocketing $1,500 a month from his client.
Things become complicated when Leo’s 16-year-old grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), enters the picture, having run away from his deadbeat mom looking to stay with his grandfather. Finding out that Leo is in a nursing home, Kyle takes up temporary residence with the Flahertys until his mom is released from rehab.
However, Kyle has a hidden talent. While living in Ohio, the troubled teen was an amateur wrestling phenom, and he agrees to join the dead-end team that Mike coaches.
Contrary to what you might think, “Win Win” is a comedy (sort of), even though the humor is often as gray as the film’s New Jersey setting, and usually coupled with high amounts of anxiety.
The comedic backbone of the movie is Kyle. He’s awkward in that comical indie sort of way, blankly speaking in one- or two-word phrases. He’s a goofy enigma, and his interaction leaves the audience and the other characters even more in the dark. It’s amusing, to say the least.
Underneath the quirkiness, however, there’s a moral compass that gradually moves northward as Mike grows closer to Kyle, and guilt becomes the movie’s leading emotion.
Like in McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” “Win Win” accepts the challenge of blending joy with heartache, and succeeds without falling into a melodramatic trap. Considering it’s a movie about a sport and a family taking in a loner teen, audiences should be grateful that the material has been handled in such a manner.
As for Giamatti’s “type”? Watch how his face evolves as the material gets heavier. As similar as Mike may be to some of Giamatti’s previous characters, he’s also wholly original.