Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is having a rough go of things. His law practice is failing and the office he works out of is falling down around him. Mike is nearly broke and he can’t bear facing his wife (Amy Ryan) and his two children with the truth. Of his two best friends, one is a semi-silent flake (Jeffrey Tambor) who helps him coach a dreadful high school wrestling team that hasn’t won a single match in years, let alone a tournament, and the other is a narcissist named Terry (Bobby Cannavale) bent on stalking his ex-wife at every turn while attempting to relive glory days that never existed. Mike conveys a sense of love for those around him combined with a sense of loneliness that only years of failure could bring about. In an effort to make some extra money, Mike convinces a judge to let him become the caregiver of one of his clients (Burt Young) instead of giving him over to the state in an effort to collect a caregiver check and help him get his practice back on it’s feet. Shortly after the judge’s hesitant decision, Mike quietly ships the old man off to a rest home and waits for the checks to roll in.
Kyle (Alex Shaffer) is a young man desperately trying to escape his mother’s boyfriend while she remains in an Ohio rehab facility. Mike comes across Kyle one day while stopping at the old man’s house to keep his pipes from freezing. Kyle is the old man’s grandson and his last hope of finding a member of his family that he can actually relate to. With the old man in a rest home, Mike and his wife reluctantly agree to shelter the young man in a bad situation despite how socially awkward he is (and what teenager isn’t) and his proclivity for getting into trouble with the law. The Win Win in the title of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s (The Station Agent, The Visitor) story refers to the fact that Kyle was once a champion high school wrestler in the state of Ohio, and Kyle and Mike become mutually beneficial to one another. Through each other, they regain the confidence that they have both lost over the years.
Win Win is one of the few films I could adequately describe as being almost flawless in every possible way. McCarthy has established himself over the course of his last two films as someone who can make a film about average people without once feeling boring or trite, and this is his masterwork. Giamatti has had a wonderful career and he delivers more top notch work as Mike, a liar who you always identify with because he is just so likable and he has a heart bigger than those around him. Mike might feel like a disappointment, but he seems to understand deep down that life goes on no matter what it puts in your way. Ryan plays the perfect foil to both Giamatti and Shaffer and is one of the most believable onscreen mothers in years. Cannavale and Tambor don’t so much steal scenes as they add to them since everyone is playing on the same level. The biggest standout, however, is Shaffer who deserves an Oscar nomination for portraying the most fully realized teenager onscreen in years.
In much the same way as the terrific television show Friday Night Lights was a sports show that rarely focused on the game itself, Win Win takes things one step further. This is not a film about high school wrestling in any way. This is a film about people and wrestling is simply another part of their lives. The script is the stuff writer’s dreams are made of. It has a real sense of pacing and dialog that just flows naturally. Even when Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey in a small but pivotal role) returns to town to reclaim her son and retain her share of her father’s property, the script never lapses into melodramatic cliches. The film remains firmly grounded in reality and the very real emotions the characters are experiencing. The film has quite a lot to say about both the nature of a loving family and the nature of an abusive one. Both are handled with grace, humour and eloquence without ever being condescending. In a time when people speak quite ironically about “winning,” Win Win actually goes out and does it.
Andrew Parker is a Toronto-based writer, critic, and filmmaker.