Friday, April 1, 2011


My history with the work of Tom McCarthy has been somewhat of a surprise. While I'm sure I'd recognized his face from earlier, minor roles, I first became truly aware of his existence from his role as dishonest journalist Scott Templeton during the fifth season of HBO's excellent TV show The Wire, which I'd caught on DVD. I hated his character, but only because McCarthy (whose name I didn't even know at the time) was so damned good playing a jackass. After that, I swear I began to see the guy everywhere. When I watched the excellent 2008 film The Visitor (do yourself and check it out if you haven't already), I was shocked to see in the special features that the director was in fact the same Tom McCarthy, the very man I'd seen months previously. Then there was the amazing animated film Up, which had McCarthy on staff as a writer. After all this I'm building a lot of respect towards this artist, who seems to do great work and create objects of true entertainment value. And so when I see a trailer for McCarthy's latest directorial piece, it of course catches my attention. Win Win seems to have all the feel-good aspects that make for an entertaining theater visit but what might make this the biggest film for McCarthy's career so far is the acting talent involved, most notably award-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti in the lead role. It may be limited to smaller theaters at the moment, but that only encouraged me to diverge from my usual routine and see the film at the Coolidge Corner Theater here in Boston, a practice I'd advise to any and all who are able to watch this great film.

Being sent to the Principal's office: never fun
Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is going through a rough patch. His small law practice is floundering. Money is tight. The school wrestling team that he coaches is completely hopeless. In short, nothing is going right for Mike, and he dreads having to reveal all this to his wife (Amy Ryan) and two daughters. Becoming the guardian for an elderly client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) inadvertently introduces Mike to Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who ran away from home and his addict mother. Now under Mike's care, Kyle helps turn things around by joining the school's wrestling team and helps put them on a streak of wins that help alleviate the family's problems and steer Kyle toward greatness... at least until his mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) arrives in town, looking to take home a son who wants nothing to do with her.

Hopefully fans of The Office will flock to see Ryan in this
Amazing acting abounds here, and there's not one weak performance in this whole bunch. Giamatti, who most recently won a Golden Globe for his similar portrayal of an everyman in Barney's Version, is just as compelling here as a regular Joe who suddenly gets the chance to control his crazy life for the first time in a long while. As always, Giamatti is the best part of his film, though several others do come close. It's especially amazing to see a guy who's not a Clooney or a Pitt do so exceptionally well; Giamatti is a symbol to actors of all ages that pure good looks can't preclude amazing talent. Shaffer makes his feature film debut as troubled teen Kyle, and you wouldn't know it to watch his performance that he's fresh blood. Perfectly personifying the youth at risk that we hear about every day, Shaffer's character is one you can't help but root for, as he goes from aimless to determined over the course of the film's events. Amy Ryan may have had better roles the Oscar-nominated Gone Baby Gone and The Wire, but her amazing work here can't go unnoticed. Going from a wife and mother who doesn't trust Kyle under her roof to one who connects with him so closely that she sees him as the son she never had, Ryan is just too wonderful, and if you don't know her talents by now this would be a good place to start. Some of the best scenes in fact focus on the budding relationship between her and Kyle, as they learn more about the other. You wouldn't think Bobby Cannavale to be a great actor to look at him, but you can't help but love Terry, Mike's best friend and confidante who got dumped by his wife for his contractor. Cannavale steals many of the scenes he's in, hopefully gaining himself a few fans in the process. Great smaller roles are filled by Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, and especially Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's druggie mother. With this cast, there are no weak points, and this helps really keep the audience vested in each small sub-plot as well as the main story.

Did you know Melanie Lynskey is from New Zealand? Me either!
With such great characters, you need a narrative that does them justice. Thankfully, that is covered by the wonderful tale McCarthy himself pens. Fully believable, the film taps into the financial crunch middle America is currently feeling, while managing to feel timeless as well; I can imagine watching this again ten years in the future and still connecting to the story as easily as I do today. Sweet but not so much as to be saccharine, and funny but not for the wrong reasons, the different sides of Win Win blend into the perfect concoction of relatability, honesty, and "aww"-inducing moments. It's obvious McCarthy set out to make the perfect feel-good film, and thanks to his efforts he succeeds with flying colors.

Unitard enthusiasts need apply
It's often tough to judge indie films like this against those of much larger Hollywood budgets, which can often afford whatever they want. The limited funds of indies also often leave them with glaring holes or deficiencies, easy to pick out and disappointing compared to the rest of the film. Win Win is not one of those films. It may not be on the same level of McCarthy's The Visitor (which was it's own brand of simple beauty), but Win Win is the kind of film that will make you stand up and cheer, not only for the film's talent but the strong message it tells. For that it's my new #1 film of 2011. Everything a good film should be; if you're lucky and it comes to a theater near you, choose it over Battle: Los Angeles and other massive Hollywood fare. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how a little bit can go a long way.

1 comment:

Opinioness of the World said...

Amy Ryan. Tom McCarthy. Your review could merely have consisted of those 4 words...that's all I needed to know!

P.S. Melanie Lynskey, while uber funny, is heartbreaking in 'Away We Go.'