Paul Giamatti and Alex Shafer in "Win Win." (Kimberly Wright / 20th Century…)
"Win Win" is hard to pin to the mat but pure pleasure to experience. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy with an impeccable feel for off-center human comedy at its funniest and most heartfelt, its low-key qualities are so relaxed and unforced every moment feels like a gift.
If you recognize McCarthy's name, these virtues will not be a surprise. With "The Station Agent" (and to a lesser extent, "The Visitor"), he's already demonstrated his gift for creating wry and whimsical individuals whose comedy grows organically out of who they are.
"Win Win" is McCarthy's most polished and successful film to date, as well as a bit of a risk. Even for a filmmaker who can make something light and entertaining out of complex personal issues, the idea of crafting a hero out of someone who falls prey to expediency and indefensibly cuts a moral corner is taking a chance. This may sound like a Frank Capra film with a high school wrestling setting, but it's one in which the hurts of the real world forcefully intrude.
To do all this, it helps to have a splendid cast. From stars Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan to supporting actors Jeffrey Tambor and Melanie Lynskey to minor players who barely have any lines, this film (cast by Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee) has an unerring touch for just the right actor in every role.
McCarthy, a busy actor himself when he is not making his own films, is especially adept at getting the best performances from his cast, no matter who they are. It can't have been easy to direct key scenes with the canny veteran Burt Young (122 films to his credit, including Paulie in the "Rocky" series) and young non-actor Alex Shaffer in his screen debut, but McCarthy makes it look like it was.
At the center of all this is the protean Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, an attorney whose life is unraveling because his business is on the verge of going under. When his young daughter Abby (Clare Foley) is told by mom Jackie, the family's moral center (a formidable Ryan), that her dad is out running, her immediate reply — "From who?" — is more on the mark than any of them know.
As if Mike's business problems weren't bad enough, he also volunteers to coach the phenomenally unsuccessful local high school wrestling team with his office mate Vigman (Tambor). And he shares tales of woe with his recently divorced oldest friend, an oblivious and self-involved hedge fund manager named Terry (beautifully played by McCarthy veteran Bobby Cannavale).
Just about the only active case Mike has involves the aged Leo Poplar (Young in his best role in memory). Leo's determined to stay in his own home and can afford to, but because he's in the early stages of dementia and without a guardian (his only living relative is a daughter he hasn't seen in 20 years), the state wants him sent to a top-of-the-line elder care facility called Oak Knolls.
When he finds out that the job of being the disoriented Leo's legal guardian would pay a desperately needed $1,500 per month, Mike volunteers for the task and, pulling a fast one on both Leo and his pledge to the court, promptly moves the old man into Oak Knolls and keeps pocketing the money. Giamatti has always had a gift for creating intense empathy for sketchy characters, an ability that has never been more essential than it is here.
Then, out of nowhere, Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. He is the grandchild Leo has never seen, and he is one enigmatic, phlegmatic young man, a 16-year-old so monotone and monosyllabic it seems he's in the early stages of dementia himself. Except for one thing: Wouldn't you know it, the kid is one terrific wrestler. (McCarthy, who co-wrote the story with Joe Tiboni, took a chance and cast a real-life high school wrestler who'd never acted before, and Shaffer shows what a wise choice that was.)
For a moment this seems like the win-win situation of the title, as Kyle, who's moved into Mike's house and taken a slot on his team, fits in so well that Mike forgets that everything has been built on his lie. Then, out of nowhere, Cindy, Kyle's mom and Leo's long-lost daughter (Lynskey in one of her most affecting roles since her "Heavenly Creatures" debut) shows up and things really get complicated.
Watching all these permutations work themselves out is so enjoyable it is easy to forget that "Win Win" has adroitly hooked us into a story whose impressive moral trajectory deals with issues of fallibility, culpability and more.
McCarthy puts over these big issues with a graceful feel for tiny moments, for a wealth of sly and subtle looks between actors. He manages to be respectful of and sympathetic to all his characters' diverse viewpoints while having a strong position of his own. A win-win situation indeed.
MPAA rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In general release