Introduction to Win Win (Tom McCarthy 2011)
Here’s the text of a film introduction I gave at Derby QUAD about Win Win, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan.
Paul Giamatti is only 44, but to be honest he’s always looked like he was 44. He is American cinema’s most plausible middle-aged Everyman: a pudgy, sad-eyed representation of every failed American dreamer. In the 1970s, Giamatti would have been an unlikely movie star in the mould of Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson. Today, his attention is divided between supporting work in Hollywood blockbusters, and revered leading roles in some of the last decade’s best independent movies.
In the late 1990s and early Noughties, you couldn’t move for seeing Giamatti, but you probably didn’t notice because the roles were small and unassuming, and Giamatti simply wasn’t famous. Be honest: did you spot him in all of the following movies? The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, Donnie Brasco, My Best Friend’s Wedding, the Planet of the Apes remake and Big Momma’s House. I must admit, when I did notice him, I thought he was comedian Rob Schneider aka Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. I could never square the subtle, versatile work that I was seeing, with the crass, broad performances I associated Schneider with.
My moment of revelation, as I expect it was for many audiences, was American Splendor, in which Giamatti took the starring role in an adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book. Pekar wrote about the mundanity of life in a style usually reserved for superheroes, the point being that he wasn’t the kind of guy who became a comic book hero. Likewise, Giamatti wasn’t the kind of guy who got leading roles, making him a natural fit for such an outsider.
His success in the role paved the way for Sideways, a film in which Giamatti was front and centre as an alcoholic divorcee trying to drown his sorrows on a wine-tasting holiday. Sideways was the best reviewed movie of 2004, and Giamatti was rightly praised for balancing the film’s tricky, bittersweet tone between laughs and pathos.
“Paul Giamatti wasn’t Oscar nominated for Sideways, one of the most conspicuous oversights in recent years…”
The film won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, was nominated for Best Film, and co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen were similarly recognised. Giamatti, however, wasn’t – one of the most conspicuous oversights in recent years. The snub was redressed the following year with a Supporting Actor nod for Cinderella Man, in which Giamatti stole the show from Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. It was the kind of role Giamatti had always excelled in but now, finally, he was getting noticed.
And as a result, he found himself in a tricky place – should he remain a big film in the small pond of indie cinema, or risk being a small fish in the mainstream? The lead role in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in The Water might have bridged the gap – it was a major summer blockbuster from a hot director – but that film flopped, doing irreparable damage to Shyamalan’s career and leaving producers unsure once more what to do with Giamatti.
So he did what all great American actors tend to do nowadays, and headed for the small-screen. He played America’s 2nd President, John Adams, in a acclaimed TV show that won more Emmys than any other mini-series in history. Giamatti himself scooped an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors’ Guild awards – in other words, every major American screen acting award except the Oscar.
Since then, Giamatti seems perfectly happy with his dual-life as Hollywood character actor and indie star. He’s just appeared as a villain in The Hangover Part 2. On the other side of the equation, he produced a virtuoso performance spanning many decades in indie hit Barney’s Version. As the title of tonight’s movie suggests, here’s an actor who really is in a Win Win situation.
“Tom McCarthy isn’t a household name but is the directorial equivalent of Paul Giamatti’s no-frills acting style…”
Giamatti has made a sensible choice here to work with Tom McCarthy, a filmmaker who isn’t a household name but is, in many ways, the directorial equivalent of Giamatti’s no-frills acting style. In only three films, McCarthy has built up a robust resume as makers of warm ‘slice of life’ indie movies, a kind of quirky modern-day Frank Capra.
McCarthy’s debut, The Station Agent, won the BAFTA for Best Screenplay before it had actually been released in Britain. His follow-up, The Visitor, earned veteran character actor Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, going one better than Giamatti had in Sideways.
McCarthy’s characters tend to apparent misanthropes, loners or misfits who forge unlikely friendships to rediscover their self-esteem. In The Station Agent, a dwarf – who has become a sarcastic grouch in a pre-emptive bid to avoid getting bullied – inherits a train station in a rural community where his neighbours make it their mission to make friends with him. In The Visitor, a widowed professor discovers that a family of illegal immigrants are living in his Manhattan apartment. Rather than kicking them out, he decides to let them stay.
In outline, McCarthy’s films sound overly madcap, but on screen they are restrained, low-key delights, preferring wry observation to full-on whimsy. Talking about The Visitor, critic A.O. Scott commended McCarthy on his ability to “resist potential triteness and phony uplift” in favour of “impressive grace and understatement” – qualities that might equally apply to Paul Giamatti.
In Win Win, Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a struggling attorney whose one pleasure is his hobby of coaching a high school wrestling team. When he takes a drastic career gamble, a promising new teen athlete comes into his life: can he provide Flaherty’s redemption? McCarthy has assembled a great cast – Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone and Green Zone, Jeffrey Tambor from The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development, McCarthy regular Bobby Cannavale and, in a cute nod to the film’s sporting theme, Rocky‘s Burt Young.
But it’s Giamatti’s show, and further proof that nobody currently does the dishevelled, middle-age Everyman quite as well as him. Giamatti is currently filming Cosmopolis, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel by David Cronenberg, a project which should further cement his standing as one of independent cinema’s leading lights. For my money, he’s one of the finest actors around, and he’s still only 44. Then again, he’ll probably still be 44 for many years to come.