| Writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent and The Visitor) set the bar so high in his two previous films that expectation levels become unrealistic and difficult to achieve in this third outing. This disappointing hard-luck story is elevated above an average television sitcom only because of the exceptional cast.
Tough economic times cause Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti from Sideways and HBO’s John Adams), a small-time New Jersey attorney, to lie to a judge in court so that he can receive $1,508 per month for serving as legal guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young, best known as Paulie in the Rocky movies), an elderly client in an early stage of dementia. Flaherty promises to actively care for Leo in his own home.
After being appointed as fiduciary, the scheming Mike sticks Leo in an elder care facility. Mike suffers from panic attacks due to the stress from worrying about his dwindling income. He moonlights as the high school wrestling coach. He keeps secrets from his devoted wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan from Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Gone Baby Gone), about his health, the guardianship arrangement and the family finances.
Things get more complicated when Mike finds a teenage boy sitting on the front steps outside Leo’s house. 16-year-old Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer) has run away from his drug-addicted mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey from Up in the Air), currently in rehab back in Columbus, Ohio. Although they have never met, Kyle is Leo’s grandson.
After checking out Kyle’s background on the Internet, Mike discovers the kid is a championship-caliber wrestler. Mike gets Jackie to agree to let Kyle live with them and enrolls him in school. Kyle joins the wrestling team. He makes friends easily with the other boys on the team. The fortunes of this group of ragtag losers are suddenly turned around and they become galvanized into consistent winners. Just like the title implies, it appears that Mike has lucked into a win-win situation with the extra money and a successful coaching stint.
The truth finally comes out when Cindy shows up. Although estranged for nearly two decades from her dad, she wants to take over as his guardian. She sees this opportunity as a chance to get an advance on her inheritance since Leo is very wealthy. She also wants Kyle to come back to Columbus and live with her.
The supporting players include Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as Mike’s best friend since childhood, Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, The Hangover and The Invention of Lying) as assistant wrestling coach Stephen Vigman and Margo Martindale (Secretariat) as Cindy’s attorney.
It is hard to gain any respect for the frustrated and morally compromised sad-sack attorney in this domestic drama. Giamatti’s uninspired performance grows tiresome. Acting laurels go to Ryan for her rendition of the only realistic and level-headed person. She displays all the qualities worth valuing in a mother and wife. Shaffer makes an impression in a strong debut. He perfectly embodies this uncommunicative, troubled youth who is thoughtful and extremely polite. The bond he forms with his grandfather is touching. In real life, Shaffer is an all-state wrestler.
The strong conversational dialogue can’t salvage the flimsy plot revolving around the choices people make and the way they rationalize their actions. The movie’s emphasis is placed on doing the right thing. The wrestling scenes are poorly choreographed and come across as amateurish. The excessive use of profane language is deplorable for what could have been billed as family-friendly fare. The movie sags over the course of its 106-minute running time.
Win Win premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. This eccentric moral fable should appeal strictly to the art house crowd. It opens at AMC Studio 30, the Glenwood Arts and the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"