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Win Win (2011)

March 22, 2011

9/10 Half Nelsons

Thomas McCarthy – remember the name.

Win Win is about a small-town attorney whose financial troubles and epic stress levels bring to take advantage of an elderly client who suffers from dementia. Then one day the client’s grandson shows up on his pappy’s doorstep, but since he can’t stay in his grandfather’s nursing home and since his mom is too hopped up on drugs to give a crap, the attorney ends up letting the kid live under his roof until further notice. Since he’s got nothing else to do, the kid joins the abysmally bad high school wrestling team that the attorney coaches, he ends up dominating on the mat like it’s nobody’s business while turning his life around academically and otherwise, and eventually finds himself becoming a part of this newfound family. So things start looking up for the attorney and his star athlete, but then the kid’s mom comes back into the picture, the attorney’s shady dealings come to light, and everything starts getting pretty emotional.

It’s written and directed by one Thomas McCarthy who’s slowly but surely been doing a great job of escaping his reputation as That-Guy-Who’s-In-Everything-But-I-Couldn’t-Tell-You-His-Name-If-You-Had-A-Gun-To-My-Head. I for one can’t name a single thing that he’s been in even though I’ve definitely seen him before, but considering he’s also the guy who’s responsible for The Station Agent, The Visitor, more power to him to keep riding that writer/actor/director gravy train he’s on. And if there’s one thing I like about McCarthy – aside from the fact that he also wrote Up – it’s that he’s a film maker after my own heart.

I don’t like to think I have a favorite genre of movies because I’m not into limiting myself to just laughter, scares, enlightenment or whatever I was supposed to get out of Dune, but when asked that dreaded question, my go-to answer is “movies about real people with real problems, officer.” Might sound a bit vague, but that’s the kind of movie this is and that’s pretty much been McCarthy’s m.o. for eight years now. Nothing flashy and they didn’t make  that much of a splash in the mainstream outside of Richard Jenkins’ much-deserved Oscar nom back in ’07, they’re just dialogue- and character-driven stories about people helping people through shit we can all sympathize or empathize with.

This here is the story of a family man trying to get through a moral crossroads and a kid with a future that’s filled with a potential and a past that keeps on holding him back. Sounds simple enough, but the beauty of it all is that it’s anything but. Some of the conflicts that come about are predictable and this premise isn’t exactly new, but when simple is done well, it kinda does feel new. I don’t know, it’s just unusual to find a movie that hits all the right notes without yanking on our heartstrings, that’s affecting without being schmaltzy, that’s dramatic without feeling Hollywood.

It’s this family. They felt real, they felt genuine, and after a while I found myself wishing the movie could go on for another hour just so I could keep hanging out with them.

Alright, I gotta tone this thing down. Sorry if I’ve been a bit on the serious side thus far, because as much as this script nails it on an emotional level, it’s also freakin’ hilarious. Lots of great running gags, lots of great dialogue, and every last one of these characters (not counting the crackhead mom) had me laughing out loud at one point. Come on, Jeffrey Tambor’s in it, what else do you need to know?

But the cast really is out of sight.

Paul Giamatti continues to be the man as the attorney-turned-surrogate father, Mike. Not that he’s got much to prove these days since he’s more or less guaranteed an Oscar as long as he doesn’t start Sheening out anytime soon, but he’s swell in the dad role and he’s an easy guy to get behind. He’s one of the best out there right there, not much else to say. And don’t really recognize Bobby Cannavale from anything aside from The Station Agent, but that dude is a goddamn riot as the assistant-assistant coach of Mike’s wrestling team. Also nice to see Amy Ryan outside of The Office and doing a bang-up job while she’s at it as Mike’s wife.

Bonus points for giving work to Burt Young. The world needs more Paulie in it.

And Alex Shaffer absolutely kills it in his very first acting role as our tap-out king, Kyle. He’s just the real deal when it comes playing a teenager. I’ve got a cousin in high school right now, and if you take away the albino hair dye and the badass tattoos that would instantly turn any 16-year-old boy into the coolest kid in homeroom, Kyle is my cousin. Part of it is the way Thompson rarely gives him lines that go past one sentence when a simple “pretty good” or “cool” will do the trick, but most of it is the way Shaffer carries himself. He’s cool as shit and he’s humble as hell, the little things that might nag at other people just seem to roll off his shoulders, and he’s really mature and straight-up nice for a kid someone who’d be easy to write off as trouble.

The dynamic between Kyle and Mike works because they’re an odd couple, but they’re also the same and they not only need each other in their lives, but they want each other in their lives. It’s a fantastic give-and-take that’s so heavy on the giving that the taking just ends up feeling like a bonus. A fitting title for such a stellar relationship.

I was expecting to like Win Win, I just wasn’t expecting to borderline love it. When everything these days seems to be geared towards unnecessary sequels, unnecessary originals and trying to justify the notion of filming The Great Gatsby in 3D, it’s so damn refreshing to come across a minor gem like this that knows the strength of a great script and a solid cast regardless of budget. It does take a bit to get going, but once Kyle enters the picture, it’s really something the way everything just starts coming together. Very funny, very genuine, and if there’s a sign that we’re finally making our way out of the dreaded movie-going months of that bastard child January and it’s asshole brother February, this is it, folks. At least February had Cedar Rapids, but either way, glad things are starting to look up.

Awesome wrestling scenes, too, especially since I’m of the mindset that wrestling is the dumbest sport on the planet…at least professional wrestling. Never quite smelled what The Rock was cooking.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. nothatwasacompliment permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:09 am

    Good review – sounds like you enjoyed it even more than I did, and I liked it a lot!

    • March 23, 2011 10:14 am

      Thanks! Yeah, I was pretty surprised by how much I liked it. Glad you dug it, too!

  2. March 22, 2011 11:08 am

    Awesome write up Aiden. I heard great things about this from the festivals it played at but I’m glad to hear it’s not just hype. Looking forward to this so much more now, thanks!

    • March 23, 2011 10:15 am

      Thanks, man. Yeah, the only thing I’d heard about it was the trailer I saw before Cedar Rapids, but even that was enough to get me to see this asap. Glad I did, definitely worth seeking out.

  3. March 22, 2011 2:58 pm

    Sounds like a must-see. Giamatti’s presence makes just about anything worth checking out, and since the well has been a bit dry for him lately outside of John Adams and a great 30 Rock guest spot, I welcome just about anything of quality that has him on board.

    • March 23, 2011 10:17 am

      Never saw John Adams and I have no clue how I missed that 30 Rock cameo, but I’m right there with ya’, Giamatti usually means quality. Definitely check it out if you can.

      • March 23, 2011 4:36 pm

        I actually just about had a heart attack because the credit doesn’t show up on his Wiki, but I double checked and sure enough I wasn’t hallucinating– second episode of S5. Hysterical and totally unexpected.

      • March 24, 2011 1:50 pm

        Haha. Will definitely YouTube that, or Hulu it, or whatever.

  4. March 22, 2011 5:41 pm

    Really hoping this pops into my zipcode now. Great review Aiden!

    • March 23, 2011 10:18 am

      Thanks! Yeah, I don’t know what the distribution for this is gonna look like, but if it comes your way, get to it, homey.

  5. Pablo Chiste permalink
    March 29, 2011 11:11 am

    I can’t wait to see this. The Visitor was great. I’ll always appreciate Tom McCarthy as the ethically challenged reporter in season 5 of The Wire

    • May 2, 2011 4:49 pm

      As soon as I finish Battlestar Galactica, that’s my next TV show. Now I’m that much more pumped.

  6. Pablo Chiste permalink
    April 19, 2011 5:52 pm

    Found myself a bit disappointed by this. Great wrestling scenes as you said and there were some touching moments. Just tried too hard to be quirky for my tastes. For my full review check out

    • May 2, 2011 4:38 pm

      Yeah, definitely had a hint of quirky thrown in there, but idk man, it all totally worked for me. Wasn’t expecting a whole lot to begin with, so I’m guessing that didn’t hurt either.


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