BY NANCY R. MANDELL
If your idea of a comedy isn’t defined by hangovers, reckless driving and casual sex, you may enjoy “Win, Win,” a gentle offering from director Tom McCarthy whose previous films—The Station Agent, The Visitor— distinguish him as a quirky talent who finds humor in strange situations.
This particular situation is set in McCarthy’s hometown of New Providence, N.J. (although filmed for no acknowledged reason on Long Island), where Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, is eking out a living as an elder care attorney who also coaches the high school’s losing wrestling team. Mike is trying desperately to keep his financial problems from his wife (Amy Ryan), although the pressure has been causing him bouts of actual physical stress.
Going completely out of character, Mike makes a spur-of-the moment decision in court one day where he is representing Leo Poplar, a well-to-do senior in the early stages of dementia whose only wish is to remain in his home. But Leo—played with great dignity and humor by Burt Young (a familiar face from all six “Rocky” films)—has been declared incompetent and needs a court-appointed guardian to do so. Mike nominates himself for the job, a noble gesture if it were not for his true motive: to collect the $1,500 a month fee that goes with the responsibility. And then, without informing the court, he promptly admits Leo to a local Alzheimer’s residence.
But wait a minute. In no time at all, Mike discovers a bleached blonde, tattooed teenager sitting on Leo’s doorstep. The kid (Alex Shaffer) is Kyle Timmons, the grandson Leo doesn’t know exists since he’s been out of contact with his only child for years. Kyle has run away from his mother, an addict undergoing rehab in Ohio, hoping to live with his grandfather. Failing to contact Kyle’s mom (Melanie Lynskey), Mike has no choice but to bring Kyle home with him, to the chagrin of his wife Jackie and the fascination of his own little girl. (The baby Jackie carries around for most of the film doesn’t seem to care one way or the other!)
By an amazing coincidence—“What are the odds!”—Mike’s best friend asks—the disaffected Kyle turns out to have been a champion school wrestler. Mike enrolls him in New Providence High making him eligible for the team. With barely time to suspend your disbelief, Kyle turns the team—and himself—around, fitting into school and the Flaherty household as though he’d been there forever.
The plot thickens when Cindy (Lynskey) turns up to claim Kyle and the $1,500 a month she’ll get as Leo’s guardian. Her presence not only threatens to expose Mike’s duplicity, but to wreck Kyle’s chances for a college scholarship as well.
As directors go, McCarthy, who also wrote and co-produced “Win Win” from a story by himself and lifelong friend and high school wrestling teammate Joe Tiboni, is a humanist. There are people—Mike and Cindy for example—who do bad things in this film, but there are no villains here. They are only doing what they have to do to survive.
This rather simple tale is fleshed out by the role played by Mike’s two close friends—the ubiquitous Jeffrey Tambor as Vigman, an accountant who shares office space with Mike, and Terry, who wrestled with Mike on the New Providence team when they were teenagers. Played by Bobby Cannavale a busy television actor who also appeared in McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” Terry is undergoing a midlife divorce crisis. Their virtually palpable friendship gives the film a foundation that supports even its corniest moments. Like the trio in TV’s “Men of a Certain Age,” these guys are just trying to get along, doing what it takes to keep their heads above the respective waters that threaten to drown them. (Thanks to a colorful description of his wrestling technique by Kyle, avoidance of drowning becomes a metaphor for just about everything that happens in “Win, Win.”)
McCarthy cast the young Shaffer, a non-professional with high school wrestling experience, as Kyle. Like all of the casting in the film, it’s a good choice. Amy Ryan—the slutty mom in “Gone Baby Gone” and more lately, a regular on “The Office”—couldn’t be better as the ordinary housewife forced to accept an Eminem look-alike into her home. The subtle change in her relationship to Kyle is one of the film’s real pleasures.
In fact, its subtlety accounts for the unexpected effect “Win Win” has on an audience—at least the one that shared the screening room where I watched the movie. I had the feeling that most of us went in with few expectations, but thanks to an unusual and literate screenplay, sensitive direction and an accomplished acting ensemble, almost everyone sat through the credits. That’s what you have to call a win/win.
This film opened Friday, March 18 at a theater near you.