Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer who makes a small ethical compromise that anyone might do in his situation. Rather than have the state become the guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an old man with dementia, Mike has himself appointed so he can get Leo’s monthly check. What he doesn’t realize is how much this is going to entangle him in Leo’s life.
First Leo’s grandson (Alex Schaffer) shows up, and then Leo’s estranged daughter (Melanie Lynskey). As Mike’s wife Jackie, Amy Ryan plays the story’s morally-impassioned compass, alternately angry at having to care for the grandson, a teen boy named Kyle, and protective of him from his drug-abusing birth mother. Mike coaches a wrestling team, and it turns out Kyle is a champion wrestler. But even as their lives seem to be turning around through the wrestling season, the discovery of Mike’s little ethical compromise threatens to become a big deal that imperils the team, his legal practice and his family.
Win Win is my favorite of the three movies written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). McCarthy also acts, and his sense of giving his actors space and moments of internal turmoil is here balanced with a plot that clicks along, gradually turning up the tension to the point where something has to explode.
If I have any criticism, it is that the eventual explosion plays out too quickly, and we aren’t allowed to see Mike suffer a bit more to earn some redemption. The acting is rock solid, with Bobby Cannavale (as Mike’s funny friend) and Jeffrey Tambor (as Mike’s law firm partner and assistant coach) playing a bit too broad for my taste. Ryan and Giamatti give their usual excellent turns, but it is newcomer Alex Schaffer, as the taciturn Kyle, who stood out for me. He was so natural and believable he sometimes made the very plausible script ring a bit Hollywood.
My main point is: go see this movie now. I’d wager anyone who enjoyed last year’s The Kid’s Are All Right will find Win Win to be a win as well. I want more indie films like this, which earn their laughter and tears from characters who act like real people — movies that treat the audience like adults. You’re not allowed to complain about there being too many big, dumb blockbusters this summer unless you go out and support a movie like Win Win when it is in theaters.