Deborah Ross

Guilt trip

Win Win is a comedy-drama that is warm-hearted and compassionate and enjoyable without, alas, being especially remarkable or original, which is a bit of a blow but I think you’ll get over it, with bed rest and time.

Guilt trip
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Win Win is a comedy-drama that is warm-hearted and compassionate and enjoyable without, alas, being especially remarkable or original, which is a bit of a blow but I think you’ll get over it, with bed rest and time.

Win Win is a comedy-drama that is warm-hearted and compassionate and enjoyable without, alas, being especially remarkable or original, which is a bit of a blow but I think you’ll get over it, with bed rest and time. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who made The Station Agent and The Visitor — two powerful character studies I could watch and rewatch into infinity — this is broader, lighter, schmaltzier and more generic, as the journey is a rather familiar one.

I’m not saying don’t go. I’m not even saying this is a poor movie, as it isn’t. I’m just saying: don’t get your hopes up too high and don’t expect the unexpected. It’s good for what it is; it’s just that what it is doesn’t add up to very much, and it won’t resonate. (Sometimes, films can go on repeating on you for years. In such instances, I would suggest saying a polite ‘excuse me’ or blaming the dog.)

Win Win is about Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-time New Jersey lawyer who is quietly panic-stricken. He is struggling to make ends meet. He loves his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and his two young daughters, but frets about providing for them. He coaches a hopelessly bad high school wrestling team. His office boiler is cantankerous, as is the toilet. He can’t afford to fix either. He pretends he no longer smokes by buying a pack, taking one out and throwing the rest into a skip. (This tickled me because, when I pretended to not smoke, I did just that.)

We feel sympathy for Mike. We like him. He is decent and kind and trying his best. We are invited to laugh at him, but fondly. We first meet him as he is trying to jog. He is plump and in sweats and chuffing along a woody lane where he is instantly overtaken by two sleek runners. He stops, and slumps dejectedly. (This also tickled me because the one time I tried to jog, people actually walked past me. I think all that pretending to not smoke had done my lungs in.) This film, if nothing else, has a nice eye for the small indignities and self-delusions we all put ourselves through in the hope of becoming better people.

Now, Mike needs a break, and this break comes in the form of Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client slipping into senility with no obvious family to care for him. Mike convinces a judge to make him Leo’s guardian, figuring no harm is done if he pockets the monthly $1,500 stipend and puts his ward in a nursing home, even though Leo has said he wants to stay in his house. Although it’s never spelled out, I’m guessing this is the seemingly win-win situation. Leo gets cared for. Mike gets the extra cash he needs. It’s ethically wrong, but everyone is looked after, right?

However, it all goes topsy-turvy when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up. Kyle is 16 and on the run from a troubled home life in Ohio. Kyle has bleached hair and tattoos and a dead look behind his eyes but is a fabulous wrestler. Will Mike and Jackie be able to reach out to Kyle? Will Kyle’s wrestling provide Mike with all the success that has thus far evaded him? And when is Mike’s unscrupulous decision going to come back and bite him on the arse, as we so know it will?

This is a film, essentially, about a good man who does one bad thing. How does he live with that? I’d like to know but Win Win actually avoids its own question, and takes the easy way out, by piling up unlikely plot contrivances, and providing a twee, almost Blind Side-style dénouement. Are people really as easy to fix as all this? Shouldn’t it be a messy business? Look, like I said, it’s a decent enough ride. There are some laughs. Giamatti is as watchable as ever, with his basset-hound eyes and squirrelly cheeks and air of bewildered disappointment, while Ms Ryan is truly wonderful as the flinty Jackie. Plus the secondary characters — Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s grumpy assistant coach; Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s dishy but spectacularly shallow best friend — are, if not fully rounded, or even wholly necessary, at least treated with great affection.

I suppose I just felt cheated it didn’t have anything to say, and was just so unsurprising. I don’t think this will be repeating on me in years to come, although that’s not so bad. What if I were ever invited to The Ivy and it repeated on me there? It doesn’t bear thinking about.