By Carl Kozlowski
Mike Flaherty is a simple man, an average Joe living in the New Jersey suburbs with a schlubby body who’s prone to panic attacks and has a struggling law practice with a wife and two young daughters to support. He coaches high school wrestling on the side, but his team is awful and hasn’t won a match in months. In other words, he seems like an all-around loser.
But when he finds a loophole in the paperwork of an elderly client named Leo whose Alzheimer’s disease has left him in danger of having his care taken over by the state, Mike hatches a plan to make some extra money. He takes over the guardianship of Leo, a task that garners him an extra $1,500 per month, and then sneaks Leo out of his own house and into residence at an assisted-living home. Suddenly, he’s got enough cash flow to survive—and no one seems to notice that he’s cheated a little to do it.
Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Well, Flaherty’s the lead character in the new comedy Win Win, where things are hardly that simple—especially when Leo’s heretofore unknown teenage grandson Kyle shows up from out of state and turns the lives of Mike and his family upside down.
The Flahertys feel compelled to take care of Kyle until they can figure out exactly why he’s fled his mother in Ohio. But when Kyle reveals his amazing talent for wrestling, Mike feels like a winner for the first time in his life and like nothing can go wrong—yet Kyle can’t quite put his mysterious past behind him.
Win Win is a character comedy with heart, following in the tradition of films like Little Miss Sunshine, Cyrus and Please Give. Its ample pleasures don’t come from exciting twists and turns—although Kyle’s wrestling matches give the film jolts of energy—but instead lie in the quieter pleasures of a story well told and the fact that it respects the audience’s intelligence with novel-quality depth and feeling.
Following his prior films as writer-director for The Station Agent and The Visitor, writer-director Thomas McCarthy offers another portrait of de facto families made of people thrown together by circumstance. A frequent character actor himself, McCarthy draws potent performances from an ace cast centered around the current era’s ultimate Everyman actor, Paul Giamatti.
As Mike, Giamatti gives full-blooded life to a man who’s living in denial of just how big a crisis his life has become. And as Mike finds himself gaining confidence alongside Kyle and his team, Giamatti is transformed as well in a role that may ultimately stand as one of his best performances. Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor offer sterling supporting work as his wife and best friends, while newcomer Alex Shaffer as Kyle delivers a performance that’s unexpected in every way—mixing an innate sadness with a wiry energy that really makes viewers feel like he could tackle any one of the other characters at any time.
Win Win offers filmgoers an intelligent alternative to empty big-studio spectacles like Battle: Los Angeles and Sucker Punch. If you’re looking for a film that will make you care about its characters and provide some uplift in these dreary times, this movie is indeed a winner.