Thomas McCarthy had his big break in 2008 when the star of his previous film, The Visitor, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The film itself was a Sundance success that gained wide critical acclaim. Win Win is a similar situation. Fox picked it up quickly back in January and gave it a March release. Despite being a lousy release date for the awards circuit, the film maintains Oscar momentum as a potential screenplay nomination for McCarthy. Is this warranted? Sure. The film works on many levels as a sports film, a family film, and an all-around American drama. And the script is the driving force.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a down-on-his luck lawyer with a private practice who is being beaten by the corporate guys. He doubles as a high school wrestling coach and struggling family man in upper-middle class Ohio. He takes on responsibility of an elderly man in order to cut the edges. The move is not morally sound but earns him some extra cash and high school kid gets dropped on his doorstep. The kid just happens to be a star wrestler.
The film is about doing what is right. It buys heavily into conventional morality and American society. And there is nothing wrong with that. If the film feels plain, I promise it isn’t. McCarthy decorates his screenplay with colorful characters. The dynamic between Mike and his two best friends/co-coaches in the wrestling room is the most important triangle of characters because they push Mike to his passion which ultimately stretches the morality of his actions. Mike is a good guy. But when stress gives into temptation, consequences arrive. The dynamic between Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale, and Jeffrey Tambor collectively drives the slight downward spiral in a believable manor. But more than mere temptation and sympathy stemming from three ex-high school wrestlers given the chance to coach a champ is the daring performance of Giamatti which allows for Mike to have a bit more edge than we are used to seeing from him or from other sport or family dramas.
The film sets out to tell a pretty straight-forward story, and it never really escapes that goal. It is just a simple films that feels genuine. I often criticize or praise films based on how much they feel like or unlike lifetime presentations. Making a film an inspirational moral tale runs the risk of falling flat. When key dramatic moments miss (like the end of Funny People), one can’t help but cringe. That is how I felt about every scene in The Blind Side and much of The Help. Win Win easily could have gone this direction in one scene in which Mike’s deeds are made clear to the star wrestler. But it is saved by tight script whose emotional breakdowns never feel forced, even when they aren’t the best acted or directed. Even when Mike and his wife desperately turn to their semi-adopted kid and say “I just want you to know that we love you,” the film sustains sincerity and refrains from feeling like a staged Kodak moment.
That said, even sound emotional exchanges of dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and one great performance don’t save the film from having a simplistic plot that can be mostly predicted from the first act. I didn’t mind knowing where it was headed; it kept me hooked for the whole ride. But a lack of originality is always a bit of a hindrance. On top of that, the character development is overly linear and Mike’s wife, tenderly played by Amy Ryan, doesn’t create quite enough drama at home to drive the start of the film. We see that there are money strains. And when Mike collapses in the first scene, we see how personal stress (and perhaps a lack of motivation in his life) is building. But these events feel more numbing than emotionally crushing.
Ultimately, these are petty complaints for a film that succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be. It isn’t an ambitious piece of work, but a film that feels very whole.
Win Win will likely not be a major Oscar contender, but I doubt it ever really intended to be either. It is a film whose scale matches its scope. It finds the heart of its characters and embraces each of them warmly. I am not a fan of sports movies, high school movies, dysfunctional family movies, or wrestling. But this one still worked resoundingly well on me. So I can’t help but recommend to anyone who liked The Visitor or is just good old fashioned Paul Giamatti fan.