Tom McCarthy’s third film as writer/director, after The Station Agent and The Visitor, is another understated little gem.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer in New Providence, New Jersey, whose legal practice is struggling almost as much as the abysmal high-school wrestling team he coaches. In dire need of money he spots an unethical opportunity to get $1,500 a month simply by acting as guardian for an elderly client with early dementia whose estranged daughter cannot be located. His plans are complicated, however, by the unexpected arrival of the man’s taciturn grandson Kyle. The boy is quickly adopted by the Flaherty family and, as he becomes more outgoing, his unsuspected prowess at wrestling sees him rapidly become the star of Flaherty’s high-school team. This win-win scenario is threatened by the sudden appearance of Kyle’s unstable mother (Melanie Lynskey) who may unravel everyone’s happiness by exposing the original deceit regarding Leo’s guardianship that Mike has engaged in…
It would be ridiculous to label McCarthy a cinematic American Chekhov, but it is accurate to say that his films sometimes feel like the best modern American short stories come to life. He has a regard for mundane details, defeated characters, and everyday struggles, and treats them with a humane sympathy and an eye for comic absurdity that makes them truly engaging. Giamatti is as wonderful as ever as a good man who has done one bad thing out of desperation but has parlayed it into a number of good things, all of which are now in peril because of his original sin. Amy Ryan is fantastic as Mike’s wife Jackie, a loving mother; whose violent verbal reproaches of Kyle’s mother Cindy belie an all encompassing compassion; counterpointed by Lynskey’s tremendously ambiguous turn as the unreliable Cindy. Jeffrey Tambor meanwhile has some wonderful moments as Mike’s assistant coach and fellow struggling lawyer who advocates ignoring their clanging office boiler until it explodes rather than pay for repairs.
This realistic portrait of an America in recession, where the villains are faceless systems of bureaucracy and a tanking economy, is rarely seen in pop culture, but McCarthy also has a talent for achieving redemptive moments without straying into bombast. There are numerous such moments here, from a guitar led montage of small victories in life, and the effect Kyle has on the worst member of the team Stemler, to the developing bond between Kyle and Mike, and the initiation into selfless responsibility of Mike’s roguish friend Tommy – enthusiastically played by Bobby Cannavale (TV’s Cupid himself). Indeed the ‘victory’ of Stemler despite Tommy’s doubts encapsulates McCarthy’s message, winning by ignoring your own morality just isn’t satisfying.
Win Win isn’t quite as good a film as the more revelatory The Visitor, but you never know where a Tom McCarthy film is going, and these days that’s most praiseworthy.