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Film review: Win Win (2011)

January 18, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Want a review? Read on. Want an introduction to Win Win? Click the link.  Success either way; there’s a saying that conveys that sensation, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.

Win Win Tom McCarthy Paul Giamatti

Win Win
(Tom McCarthy, US, 2011)

The sporting movie downsized – in terms of economic woe, high school wrestling might just be the most appropriate activity.

It’s not exactly a hotly contested honour, but Tom McCarthy is surely the nicest director currently working in America. His films are about ordinary, essential decent people struggling to get by, who find their salvation through nothing more magical than human contact. And, remarkably, he does it without the insincere, focus-group sentimentality that will have you reaching for the sick bucket. When McCarthy characters smile, they don’t flash those perfect shit-eating Californian grins, but bashful, even rueful half-smiles, as if they’re ashamed of having fun.

Admittedly, Win Win isn’t so much a progression from earlier hits The Station Agent and The Visitor, as a refinement. Where previously the trigger for the hero’s spiritual rebirth was caused not by chance (the inheritance of The Station Agent, the discovery of illegal immigrants squatting in a flat in The Visitor) but by a moment of weakness. Mike Flaherty is a normal, average guy, with a normal, average family, but one who happens to be living through a recession. So, when the opportunity arises to stave off bankruptcy with some hassle-free extra cash – even at the expense of a kind, helpless pensioner – Flaherty takes it against his better instincts.

Two things are notable in Win Win. One, that McCarthy makes this a surprising twist of behaviour for a lawyer. Flaherty isn’t the usual cinematic huckster exploiting a loophole for profit, but a down-at-heel attorney whose business is slow because…well, everybody’s is nowadays. Second, that having established this recessionary subtext, McCarthy doesn’t dwell on it until the later stages of the film, where a lovely pay-off in the final scene reminds us that things never work out perfectly in real-life.

Instead, McCarthy shifts gears and swaps genre, as Mike’s duties suddenly, inexplicably include looking after Leo’s grandson. Who just happens to be the wrestling ace that the team Mike coaches needs. It’s an astounding contrivance, completely at odds with the shabby realism elsewhere, but the film thrives on the juxtaposition. Indeed, it’s implicit in the title: the dramatic connotations of ‘win’ in the sense of sporting triumph clash with the tiny victories that most people would be happy with.

McCarthy doesn’t need any surprises here. Win Win is a film whose outcome is entirely predictable, because it doesn’t fight the inevitable consequences of its sporting movie set-up. Like a wrestler, McCarthy uses the film’s own predictable moves against it, pinning it down until it is putty in his hands. Nor does need elaborate camera moves or melodramatic set-pieces: this is an old-fashioned, classically shot movies whose only special effect is its actors.

Paul Giamatti is the natural choice for this film, allowing his already hangdog demeanour to curve into a human ball, buffeted by fate but capable of sudden switches in energy and direction. He’s as commanding and excitable in the gym as he is despondent and lethargic at work, but the really interesting work is done at home, where he establishes a wry settled-ness in contrast to his more outspoken wife, played with brio by Amy Ryan. It’s a marvellous portrait of wedded comfort, not least because despite Mike’s transgressions the marriage never feels threatened – this two love each other, and will take on another child if they have too.

Actually, in a typical McCarthy move, Win Win is a film about the Flahertys’ extended family – indeed, that might just be this director’s big theme. While the focus is rightly on teenage fighter Kyle (played with pleasantly hesitant watchfulness by newcomer Alex Schaffer), McCarthy’s democratic style gives the best lines and most memorable moments to a classy ensemble that includes Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young and the increasingly delightful Bobby Cannavale, the nearest to a repertory player McCarthy has. Cannavale’s infectious enthusiasm is beginning to define the director’s films.

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