Tom McCarthy possesses an extensive acting resume, having starred in films like Fair Game, The Lovely Bones, 2012, Duplicity, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck and Little Fockers to name a few. He also shares an Oscar nomination for the writing credits in the animated Disney film Up. Less known however may be his directorial work in The Station Agent, The Visitor and now Win Win.
McCarthy’s greatest talent behind the camera seems to be his ability to capture the story of the mundane and to elicit real emotions from his characters. It is a shame then that the deluge of profanities in this movie (nearly 2 dozen uses of a strong sexual expletive and frequent scatological slang) mars an otherwise thought-provoking production.
The movie’s main character, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), works out of an old house remodeled into a law office. He spends as much time tinkering with broken office machinery and plunging a perpetually backed up toilet as he does meeting with clients. But though his company is failing, he feels a deep responsibility for the livelihood of his secretary Shelly (Nina Arianda) and business partner Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), as well as his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two young daughters (Clare Foley, Penelope Kindred).
In the afternoon he and Stephen make a little extra cash coaching the local high school wrestling team. Unfortunately the squad’s win-loss record leans almost exclusively to the loss column.
With the pressures of life weighing heavily on all fronts, Mike gets a glimmer of hope when one of his clients goes before the court. In a last minute decision, Mike offers to serve as guardian for Leo Poplar (Burt Young) so that the man can remain in his home. The $1,500 a month salary will help Mike’s financial situation as well. However, almost immediately, the beleaguered lawyer realizes he won’t be able to keep up Leo’s care and so moves the elderly man into the very retirement home Leo wanted to avoid. Mike feels a twinge of guilt for his ethical indiscretion but justifies it by reminding himself the state would have pocketed the money after doing the same thing.
Yet like so many of those little decisions we are faced with, this one becomes increasingly complex when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on the doorstep of the old man’s home. Obviously suffering from physical abuse, the boy needs a place to stay. Given the teen’s rough background, Jackie is a little nervous about inviting him into their home, at least until her mothering instincts kick in. Not only does Kyle prove to be a good kid who just needs a second chance, he also is a great wrestler. (Shaffer is a real life high school wrestler who won the New Jersey state championship as a sophomore. His only other acting role was in a sixth-grade production of "The Pirates of Penzance".)
While McCarthy’s screenplay involves several storylines, he manages to keep them all moving forward, introducing and developing characters and circumstances that are very believable. And it’s that sense of realism that will make many audience members cringe as they watch the good-hearted Mike heading for trouble when Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up with a lawyer (Margo Martindale) and the transcripts from the court hearing.
Quiet and understated on many fronts, Win Win looks at those choices and relationships that color and mold the direction of life. Fortunately, it also gives its characters a chance to redeem themselves and get back in the win column. Too bad it couldn’t do the same with the language content.