Friday, April 8, 2011

Win Win: Quiet triumph

Win Win (2011) • View trailer for Win Win
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and teenage smoking
By Derrick Bang

Actor turned writer/director Tom McCarthy concocts marvelous little ensemble pieces that are populated by disparate characters trying to connect with each other. They might be lonely, frustrated or somehow incomplete, but they’re always familiar and engaging: the sort of folks who could live next door, possibly as good friends in need of an emotional lift.
With bills piling up and his career circling the drain, Mike (Paul Giamatti, left)
yields to an ill-advised impulse ... and suddenly, weirdly, finds that things
start to go right in his life. But the knowledge of his misdeed eats away at his
soul, threatening all the new joy in his daily routine ... including a delicate
but genuinely loving bond with a lonely teenager, Kyle (Alex Shaffer).

McCarthy came to our attention back in 2003, with The Station Agent, a whimsical saga about a man (Peter Dinklage) who moves to rural New Jersey to mourn the loss of a friend, and winds up having to deal with an equally lonely woman (Patricia Clarkson) and an uncommonly chatty hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale). You can’t watch this charming film without smiling repeatedly; at the same time, McCarthy demonstrates an unerring sense of the way people reach out for each other, even while insisting they’re doing no such thing.

McCarthy’s next film, 2007’s The Visitor, upped the ante in terms of content and dramatic heft. Richard Jenkins garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as a bereft college professor who, still missing the wife who died young, discovers that his New York City apartment has been, ah, “occupied” by squatters. But this young man and woman aren’t low-lifes; they’ve been tricked into believing the apartment genuinely was available. The subsequent narrative puts a human (and refreshingly nonjudgmental) face on the plight of illegal immigrants, while demonstrating how helping others can teach us how to help ourselves.

All of which brings us to Win Win, which nestles somewhere between McCarthy’s first two films, with respect to tone. Although not as charged as illegal immigration, this story’s underlying premise — the tantalizing lure of situational ethics — still prompts us to confront our own behavior. As is so blindingly true in the real world — more so than ever these days, it seems — mistakes themselves aren’t necessarily the end of one’s relationship, career, whatever; we’re judged by what we do after the lapse in judgment.

Disheartened elder care attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) has watched his one-man business slide deeper into financial crisis for some time now. He seems genuinely drawn to his trusting clients, but lacks enough of them to make ends meet. He shares an office — actually a converted house — with Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), a CPA similarly stressed by economic woes. Both men have been reduced to their own ill-equipped handyman repairs, whether dealing with a blocked toilet or a basement boiler/water heater that sounds like it’s auditioning for a role in Stephen King’s The Shining ... and is, in the words of a plumber, “ready to blow” at any moment.

Mike also moonlights as a high school wrestling coach; Stephen is his assistant. Their team is a hapless, listless, dispirited bunch; they’ve have to dig up to reach the cellar. In other words, Mike also derives no joy from this extra-curricular activity.

By day, he has been looking out for Leo Poplar (Burt Young), one of his favorite clients. Despite the onset of first-stage dementia, the old man wants to continue living in his own house; the state, concerned in an official capacity, has other ideas. Leo has no known relations; his only daughter, estranged for 20 years, can’t be found. Tempted by the $1,500 per month he could earn by acting as Leo’s legal guardian, Mike petitions the judge for this responsibility, and receives it.

Nothing wrong so far ... but then Mike bundles Leo into a care facility anyway, removing the old man from his beloved home, and telling him that this is “the judge’s order.” To Mike’s minimal credit, Leo’s new surroundings are luxuriously appointed, with an obviously caring staff. Not that this matters, of course: Mike has lied for financial gain.

And because this is Giamatti, master of his richly expressive features, this knowledge eats at Mike.

We can wonder how long Mike might have let this go on, in the absence of other complications. The overworked court system likely wouldn’t catch up with him very quickly, but Mike’s second mistake is the belief that he can keep this secret from his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). She’s a sharp, shrewd judge of character, and she knows her husband well; she can tell, almost immediately, that something about him is off. But he insists that everything is fine — he also hasn’t confessed their financial troubles — and she believes him, because she trusts him.

Ah, but “other complications” are eager to catch up with Mike. This begins with the arrival of 16-year-old Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a moody, not quite sullen and oddly polite kid who turns up on the doorstep of Leo’s house. Kyle, it turns out, is the grandson Leo never knew he had: the only child of the long-estranged daughter, who we now learn is a drug addict forever in and out of rehab. Kyle loathes her; running away and hoping to live with his grandfather — a total stranger! — is the only card the boy had left to play.

What can Mike do? He takes the boy in, of course; Jackie, although convinced that her husband has lost his mind, soon thaws. She can see that Kyle is a basically decent kid ... despite his numerous tattoos, and the fact that he smokes, and his unwillingness to talk about his mother, or the demons that have driven him to this desperate act.

This caring wife and mother — Jackie, as designed by McCarthy — plays to Ryan’s strengths as an actress. She’s still well remembered for her Oscar-nominated turn as the mother from hell in Gone Baby Gone; she’s a completely sympathetic character here, but no less feisty, and given to flashes of temper. Mike doesn’t fear her, exactly, but he certainly respects her take-charge attitude; one of this story’s gentle running gags involves watching how Jackie recants her snap decisions, when her obviously warm and sympathetic heart takes over.

Kyle arrives as a “dangerous” element who embraces “demon rap music,” but soon he becomes a confidant. And besides, Mike and Jackie’s two young daughters adore the boy.

Kyle naturally tags along for Mike’s after-hours coaching duties, and then the other bomb drops: This mop-haired teen is a gifted natural as a wrestler ... indeed, was taking championships at his previous school. Mike senses himself bonding with the boy, and Kyle clearly looks up to his new father-figure.

But this new relationship dynamic is predicated on a lie, and Mike knows it; the haunted look on Giamatti’s face becomes almost comical in its desperation. And whatever nobler instincts might have persuaded Mike to come clean before, now get buried even deeper by confused morality; everything Mikes wants — financial security, a more promising wrestling team filled with kids who now look up to him — has come to pass ... albeit as the result of a “bad deed.” It could be said that Mike is winning, suddenly ... but as we’ve always been told, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

And how can Mike confess the truth about Leo, without severing the thin bond of trust that has been established with Kyle?

Cue the arrival of Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Kyle’s mother — Leo’s long-absent daughter — and then everything changes.

As he most recently demonstrated with the far less likable protagonist in Barney’s Version, Giamatti has no trouble getting us to sympathize with morally compromised characters. Actually, it’s not hard to like Mike; his one transgression aside, he’s a caring guy who understands how to address the disappointments in others’ lives, because he has his own shattered dreams. He lives them on a daily basis: a business that he can’t quite keep afloat, a squad of young wrestlers he can’t quite inspire.

Giamatti’s hangdog countenance also stimulates our compassion; this guy clearly isn’t happy with the results of his misdeed. We want Mike to do the right thing — we understand, as well, that he recognizes the necessity of this — but McCarthy’s story keeps digging the poor guy’s hole deeper.

Ryan is a hoot as the flinty, sharp-tongued Jackie, quick to employ a gaze that could melt through steel. Shaffer is completely credible as a morose, withdrawn teen whose one visible saving characteristic — his oddly formal politeness — suggests the incredible young man waiting within, for the opportunity to burst forth and shine.

(Shaffer also is remarkable in his own right: a genuine high school wrestler with no previous acting experience, who answered a casting call and proved just right for the role. It’s worth searching the Internet for the various feature articles that have been written about him and McCarthy, starting with this National Public Radio profile.)

Cannavale delivers light comic relief as Mike’s good friend Terry, a guy at loose ends over his soul-sucking divorce. The always reliable Margo Martindale, currently on view as the evil criminal matron on TV’s Justified, pops up in a few telling scenes as another attorney.

David W. Thompson stands out among the other young wrestlers, as a bench warmer who hasn’t quite worked up the nerve to actually participate. Lynskey, whose career has come in two flavors — endearingly loopy or quietly scary — channels more of the latter here, as the scheming and opportunistic Cindy.

We can’t draw the strokes that broadly, of course ... because isn’t Mike also scheming and opportunistic?

McCarthy’s engaging plot — from a story he wrote with Joe Tiboni — drives this film, but we’re captivated, at all times, by the relationship dynamics. All these characters look, sound and feel authentic; they once again demonstrate McCarthy’s sure and certain touch as a director, and his uncanny knack for putting people into challenging situations, and stepping back as they try to work their way out ... almost as if these characters are so well imagined that they’ve come to actual life, while trying to control their destinies.

My one complaint is the film’s final scenes: a bit too rushed, a little too pat. A few lingering, nagging questions remain. Then again, real life is sloppy that way; we rarely get gift-wrapped resolutions. More importantly, if a film’s success is at least partially based on one’s desire to watch it again, then Win Win certainly triumphs; I’d welcome any opportunity to spend another couple of hours with these characters.

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