I still have plenty of movies left to see at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but I don’t know if any will leave me smiling as much as Tom McCarthy’s Win Win. The movie a gigantic ball of warmth filled with terrific performances, smart humor, and genuine emotions. Even a glaring narrative question doesn’t slow the film down because you’re too busy caring about the characters and their journey. Everything in Win Win is earned, from the laughs to the sentiment, and the payoff is tremendous.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling attorney/high-school wrestling coach who has a family to support and not a lot of money to support them. When his client Leo (Burt Young), an elderly gentleman in the early stages of dementia, is about to become a ward of the state, Mike steps up and offers to be Leo’s guardian, but it’s not exactly out of the goodness of his heart as much as it’s the $1500 a month he’ll receive in return. Mike lies and says he’ll keep Leo in his house but then decides to put Leo in a nice nursing home. It’s a despicable, unethical act and the film could have easily fallen apart before it even started, but McCarthy handles the emotions so well and Giamatti gives such a compassionate performance, that you don’t turn against the character.
And before you can even start to be really disgusted with Mike, his little scam hits a snag. Showing up on Leo’s doorstep is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson. It’s a bit of a shock to find Kyle since no one has been able to get in touch with his mother/Leo’s daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey). Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) decide to take in Kyle until they figure out his situation. It just so happens that Kyle is an incredible wrestler and it’s not long before he decides to join the team. While this coincidence pushes the suspension of disbelief, you buy into it because A) a character comments on the fantastic providence of the situation, and B) McCarthy and his cast do a fantastic job of selling the honest emotions and humor of the characters and their story.
Everyone on screen, no matter the size of their role, does an amazing job. Giamatti feels like such an underdog and we’re always on his side. Watching him figure out how he was going to score a victory over a potential conflict had the audience cheering. Ryan is sublime as she effortlessly moves from being wary of Kyle to wanting to protect him and punch his irresponsible mother in the face. What’s more, Giamatti, Ryan, and the young actresses who play their kids feel like a real family. When their daughter curses early in the movie, it’s not a cheap laugh because it organically arises out of the family dynamic.
The supporting cast is also outstanding. Bobby Canavale, who plays Mike’s best friend Terry, almost walks away with the picture as he brings uncanny comic timing and a huge heart to his performance. And watching Canavale play off costar Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Mike’s fellow wrestling coach, is an absolute delight. Credit is also due to the breakthrough performance from Shaffer. Win Win is his first feature and based on his work here, I can see a big future ahead for him. He plays Kyle like a real teenager, and he exhibits such warmth and fragility that you instantly share Mike and Jackie’s desire to protect him.
After the home runs of The Station Agent and The Visitor, McCarthy has hit another one out of the park. It’s difficult to find genuine emotions and still get big laughs, but McCarthy makes it look easy. It also takes considerable talent to convey a somewhat obscure sport like Greco-Roman wrestling and make it compelling. But McCarthy, rather than take the easy route and make Kyle a baseball or basketball star, relishes the challenge and it makes the world feel more authentic as a result. This ability to tap into this realism was invaluable as I wasn’t really plagued with my question of why no one offers Leo, who is wealthy, private in-home nursing care. Obviously, if they did, then Leo could stay in his house and there would be no conflict. In a movie where you don’t care about the characters or the story, a narrative cheat like this can be death because it’s a symbol for the phoniness of the entire film. But with Win Win, you shrug and accept it because you want to see what will happen next.
McCarthy has crafted a beautiful movie that’s honest, doesn’t shy away from complex emotional situations, and always keeps your heart full with big laughs and characters worth caring about. There are feel-good movies, feel-great movies, and then there’s Win Win.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: