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Win Win (2011) Review

Win Win
Rated R:
Directed By: Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Shaffer,
Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale

I’m not a political science major, but I did take a community college course and when I think of the term “win win” I think of the “Prisoner’s dilemma.” the sociological game theory means in lamens that the outcome for two people requires compromise to both obtain a “win win” scenario otherwise if one or the other screws each other it can be a “lose lose” or “win lose” situation, otherwise meaning that the outcome will be successful for one but not the other. Whether we know it or not, we deal with these kind of compromises in daily life and essentially that’s what this film is about.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty (perfect name for him), as a small-time Jersey lawyer who specializes in Elder law and works out of an office that looks like a colonial dental office, complete with an old, clanking boiler. He has a wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two young daughters. He coaches a high school wrestling team with his partner/friend (Jeffrey Tambor) with a consistent losing streak. He begins to do morning jogs that the doctor recommend to cope with stress. Mike has a good life and is happy, but has fallen on hard times. His law practice isn’t the success it once was, and supporting a family in tough economic times has become increasingly difficult. Once he takes on a wealthy client, Leo, with an MIA daughter, no other immediate family and early signs of dementia, Mike chooses to be his guardian. Why? because Leo doesn’t want state care and Mike gets a guardian fee every month. So, he gets an extra paycheck and moves the client into the nursing home. What difference does it make? It’d be too hard to take care of him and the old man doesn’t know any better. Some might see this as a sleazy thing to do, but Mike isn’t selfishly spending the extra money, he needs it to keep his family and whole world afloat. Enter Kyle, Leo’s grandson. A bleach-blond 16 year old slacker looking to stay with his grandfather while his mother is in drug rehab. Mike introduces him to Leo, but at first sees him as the only thing standing in the way of being exposed. He tries to send him home only to realize that he has nowhere to go. Kyle then stays with the Flahertys who are uneasy about the situation at first until, he attends a wrestling practice where its discovered he is a former high school wrestling champion.

I may be making the movie sound more complex then it is. Personally, I thought I was walking into an indie underdog sports movie. It’s not. The movie is about relationships first and foremost. Paul Giammati has one of his best roles as Mike. He’s likable, trustworthy, and relatable. Besides, the situation with Leo, he is a likable person, doing what’s best for his family. He is the anchor to the movie and is a treat to watch onscreen. His relationship with Kyle develops into a father-son type bond. Kyle, played by first time actor Alex Shaffer, is fantastic as a monotone, laid-back teenager. He wears his hair bright blonde, he smokes, and he has angel wing tattoos, but he isn’t a cliche 16-year old movie character, he’s a real person with real emotion. The Flahertys view him as we might view him, as a misguided, troublemaking outcast, when really he is just a kid acting out because he has no one to rely on. Each supporting role is expertly cast from Amy Ryan as the motherly Jackie (think of a less bitchy Melissa Leo in the Fighter), to the scene-stealing lawyer/wrestling coach/best friends Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale, each character is indivually fleshed out and feels real. While not every character I felt got closure, they all feel uniquely fleshed out. Not a bad performance in the bunch.

This is writer/director Tom McCarthy‘s third film. Each of his films deal with a character and their relationship with a opposite character that enters their lives. McCarthy’s script is brilliant in that every scene and plot development feels telegraphed, but the writer/director takes a situation that we see as a sitcom cliche and twists it and grounds it right into reality, giving the film a fresh quality. The situations might not feel real, but they feel real for the characters, who are so well-drawn out that they feel like people you know. That might feel like a copout for some but for me it feels like a truthful resolution. The movie is part a sports movie, with some hilarious and tense wrestling scenes, mixed with lots of great slapstick and one-liners via Giamatti, Tambor, and Cannavale. The movie is definitely not for all tastes. It’s indie to the core, it’s open-ended, and honest. Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer‘s character’s both make choices that will benefit them but will effect someone else negatively. Besides them, many of the characters are faced with situations that force themselves to make a compromise to do what is essentially the “right” thing. That is basically the principle behind the “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” and the principle behind the film “Win Win.” A front-runner for the best of 2011, that I hope doesn’t get forgotten by the end of the year.

Rating: 9/10

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