Win Win

Win Win

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Writer/director Tom McCarthy is one of that rare breed of filmmaker who knows how to handle and balance different elements of plot development - and make even complicated storylines look effortless. He showed with The Visitor that he is happy to meld small character-driven stories with bigger picture politics without either aspect feeling forced and here, writing with long-time friend Joe Tiboni, he pulls off a similar feat, merging family drama and astute social comment with a high school sports plotline. That he, in addition, manages to bring something refreshing to the latter - that most hackneyed of coming-of-age staples - deserves particular praise. His characters may at first appear simple and geared up to provide easy comedy, but as the film develops it becomes apparent that they are much more complex and believable human beings, who may be flawed but not fatally so.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a regular Joe, the sort of average middle-American family guy we've all met at some point. He has a reassuringly happy home life with the requisite wife (Amy Ryan) and kids, although things aren't going quite so well on the work front, with finances at his small-town solicitor's office, which he shares with accountant Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) at something of an all-time low. Still, he's a man who knows how to juggle and when a gift horse presents itself he doesn't turn dentist. So, when his elderly client Leo Poplar (Burt Young) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's but wants to fight being shoved in a home, Mike sees not so much an opportunity to help the aged but the chance to make a quick buck via guardianship fees with, so far as he is concerned, no one getting hurt.

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This may be the outer layer of this Russian doll story - a consideration of murky morals and what the word necessity really means - but nestling within it is another gem of a narrative. This second story concerns Mike's role as the coach of his son's pretty woeful high school wrestling team and the complications which ensue when Leo's young grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives on Mike's doorstep with his mum in rehab and nowhere to go. Mike's wife Jackie quickly takes Kyle under her wing, but Mike is torn between wanting the boy, a wrestling ace, on his team and wanting his life to return to normal. Meanwhile, Kyle's mum is set to enter the picture, with her own plans for making a quick buck.

Everything about McCarthy's film feels easygoing and economical. His scripting is sharp and laugh-out-loud funny, with relationships and family dynamics establilshed quickly in an unfussy fashion. His characters are fully developed but he also knows when to resist layering on the back story, trusting the viewer to be smart enough to draw conclusions for themselves. This means that you don't find yourself grappling with spurious plot but rather, more able to freely consider the quandries faced by the central characters.

Aspects of the school's wrestling season may feel as familar and well-worn as your favourite dressing gown, but McCarthy and Tiboni twist this initial familiarity to get beyond the usual trite cliches and into a realm that feels altogether more realistic. What is most interesting is how the tropes of the various wrestling bouts are used to accentuate and explore the small but much more significant human drama concerning, love, morality and responsibility that are going on around them.

McCarthy also gets the best from his actors. Giamatti is better than he has been for ages as Mike, possibly because his character has so much more depth and scope than many of the 'sad sack' types he often plays, and Ryan shows a two-parts soft, one-part steel brilliance in her supporting performance. Shaffer is a newcomer to film - though a top-class youth wrestler in real life - but he brings enormous depth to his character here, wrestling with emotions as well as with the other kids and I'm certain this won't be the last film he makes an impact in.

Nothing in life is easy, and this film shows that. Affections are earned not bought and sold and there is, despite what Mike might initially think, no gain to be had in cutting corners. McCarthy makes this sort of complexity look simple - and I suspect this is why he often doesn't get enough critical credit - but when you shed a tear in a McCarthy film, it comes from a genuine emotional build-up rather than a piece of cheap Hollywood manipulation. Long may that continue.

Reviewed on: 17 May 2011
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A small-town solicitor finds a way to make ends meet by becoming the guardian of an Alzheimer's sufferer, but trouble brews when his grandson arrives...
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Director: Thomas McCarthy

Writer: Thomas McCarthy, based on a story by Thomas McCarthy and Joe Tiboni

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Jeffrey Tambor, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young

Year: 2011

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2011

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