Apr 4, 2011

Film Review: Win Win

I went into Win Win with relatively few expectations. Multi-hyphenate (writer, director, actor) Thomas McCarthy did write and direct two of my favorite films of the past decade, The Visitor and The Station Agent. However, he also acted in Little Fockers, so it was a pretty even playing field.

Deleted Scene?
Let me just say now that Win Win is as close to a perfect film as I have seen in the past few years. It’s a quiet, unassuming movie that grabs the audience with wonderful character notes, impeccable acting, and natural dialogue and scene progression. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), a New Jersey lawyer and wrestling coach who suffers from anxiety attacks brought on by the stress of a failing practice, an about-to-fall-over tree in his front yard, money problems, the lies he’s telling his wife (the wonderful Amy Ryan), and the general, self-perceived suckiness of his life. Through a series of gentle lies, he takes on guardianship of one of his clients in order to stave off financial ruin. He soon takes responsibility, not only for his elderly client (Burt Young’s Leo Poplar), but also for the old man’s abused, wrestling savant grandson Kyle Timmons, played with stone-faced, flat-voiced depth by newcomer Alex Shaffer. Mike finds a joy through Kyle’s skill in the wrestling arena but is plagued by the knowledge that the lies he has constructed may fall down at any moment.

In his previous films, McCarthy specialized in men separate themselves from the world only to have life forced onto them by outside forces.  Peter Dinklage’s Finbar McBride in The Station Agent, Richard Jenkins’s Walter McVale in The Visitor, and Ed Asner’s Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s
Up have all cut ties with society (because of being widowed and subsequently becoming heart-breakingly disillusioned), but come to embrace life’s connections in interesting an unexpected ways. Mike Flaherty is a different beast altogether. Sure, he floats through life with the characteristic, McCarthy-penned ennui, but he is spared from hermitage by his well-established, completely loveable, and believable support system.

Amy Ryan, as his Jon Bon Jovi-loving wife, is simply mesmerizing. She melds into her character, portraying with mannerisms and character affectations more humanity and unforced realism than even the wonderful script gives her. She’s luminous. Bobby Cannavale, playing his own blend of suave douche-baggery, shines as Terry, Mike's version of 'that friend you have that’s kind of a dick' (Cannavale has perfected this type of character in projects like The Station Agent and in his memorable turns on Sex and the City [link absolutely NSFW] and Shall We Dance). His huge house and hardened exterior hide a vulnerability that comes out slowly as the scenes progress, and that façade-melting is a great thing to watch. Even the supporting actors shine, including the woefully under-used Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s screwed up mother Cindy, Margo Martindale (who is usually one of the high points of any movie she’s in, like Paris,Je t’Aime) as Cindy’s lawyer Eleanor, and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coach Stephen, whose bumbling, hilarious The Larry Sanders Show [link a bit NSFW] and Hellboy-type persona comes out in the best possible ways.

Of course, the lead of the film and standout star is Paul Giamatti. He is a brilliant actor who unsurprisingly and effortlessly becomes Mike Flaherty. In the film, his character may be too out of shape to keep up with the trendy joggers in his neighborhood but he is also far from being the butt of the joke. Rather, Giamatti plays the character with a quick wit and ineffable, wily grace. Sure, he screws up as he skirts the law and puts his marriage in jeopardy, but it’s always apparent that there is a lot going on in his head that we aren’t seeing in words; he’s floundering, yes, but he’s also mentally ahead of everyone else (save for his wife). It’s exciting to see how he will get out of the traps he’s caught in, and sometimes it’s unclear whether he will actually pull it off. It’s simply a brilliant performance, and hopefully Giamatti will be a contender at the Academy Awards next year.

The film does hit some false notes in its quest for narrative closure. There are a few uncharacteristic bursts of emotion and rage from the characters that don’t seem to come from anywhere and die out too quickly. Still, this film is so good that I am having a hard time coming up with more synonyms for brilliant.  See it!

Grade: A+

On a side note, comedian James Adomian does a Giamatti impression − recently on Scott Aukerman’s ComedyDeath-Ray Radio podcast − wherein he plays the actor as an angry schlub and “Hollywood’s designated fat f*ck!”  Basically, it involves being angry at the world and Philip Seymour Hoffman for everything that is wrong in his life. It’s a great bit, and it’s almost believable that the real Paul Giamatti may, in fact, be an angry, typecast, un-bathed buffoon that Hollywood has all but forgotten. But in seeing Win Win, one realizes that Adomian’s characterization is actually completely wrong. 
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