Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: "Win Win"

I was expecting "Win Win" to be a black comedy, which it is not, but was still pleased with what I found. It's a wonderfully acted little drama about a tight-knit group of ordinary people whom we get to know and like, despite their quirks and flaws.

And it stars Paul Giamatti, who is to film acting what pizza is to cuisine: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Even when the movie around him is shaky ("Duplicity"), he finds interesting notes to add. When he's got a sharp supporting cast and inspired direction, as Giamatti does here, watch out.

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a middle-aged family lawyer whose life gets turned upside down when he takes on the guardianship of an elderly client. Then the old man's grandson shows up looking for a home and something to count on, and he turns out to be a wrestling prodigy, which just happens to be Mike's passion as coach of his old high school team.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, a character actor who made his debut behind the camera with 2003's "The Station Agent," constructs a movie that's not really about wrestling, though there's plenty of action on the mats.

It's more about a guy who feels rudderless in life, and then here's this kid with plenty of his own problems, but has this one zone of perfection where he's in absolute control. Mike, whose legal practice is deflating and whose team hasn't won a match all year, craves that sensation of being master of his own fate.

(I feel compelled to disclose that there were some serious projection problems at the press screening I attended, and the dialogue was hard to hear during the first half, and occasionally winked out entirely.)

Mike's wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is the calm, rational ying to Mike's jittery yang. He's kept her in the dark about their financial troubles, and doesn't even bother to tell her he agreed to become guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client with dementia, in order to collect the $1,508 monthly check from the state. Leo desperately wants to stay in his own house, but Mike deposits him at Oak Knoll, the local old folks home.

Mike's not a bad sort, specializing his practice in helping old people even though it isn't the most lucrative form of lawyering around. But he's got two young daughters, a nice house with a mortgage, the wrestling team to turn around, and on top of all that the boiler in his office basement announces its need to be replaced with persistent knocks and bangs.

Then Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives one day looking for Leo, who didn't even know he had a grandson. His daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) is a druggie incommunicado for the last 20 years. Apparently she disappeared into rehab without even bothering to tell Kyle.

Kyle comes to stay with the Flahertys, strictly on a temporary basis, but the kid takes root quickly and begins to bloom. Then he tags along to wrestling practice, and Mike and his assistant coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) are wowed by his viper-fast moves.

"I don't think we can teach him anything," Vigman admits.

Eventually Cindy turns up to reestablish her relationship with her father -- at least the part that involves his money -- and her son.

The dialogue is terrific, rolling off the actors' tongues with an ungilded grace, though I did find the screenplay lacking in a couple of aspects. Kyle comes across as something of a cipher, an uncommunicative wall -- even for a teenager.

The movie is less about the relationship between Kyle and Mike than what happens to Mike by meeting Kyle, and it would have been rewarding to see more give-and-take.

There's also Mike's best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), a scene-stealer going through a classic mid-life crisis, whose need to associate himself with Kyle's athletic success is even more desperate than Mike's. He's going through a nasty divorce, and I wanted more of his story arc.

Still, these quibbles are from someone who's not complaining about the meal, just wishing he had more of it.

3 stars out of four

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