Friday, March 25, 2011

Win Win: Thomas McCarthy’s Moving, Memorable American Tale

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win Win.

Win Win, the latest film from writer-director Thomas McCarthy continues in the same pleasing vein of his two previous movies, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). It, too, is concerned with the lives of ordinary people who sometimes do extraordinary things, much like the recluse (Peter Dinklage) in The Station Agent who affects a motley group of people when he moves to their neighbourhood; to the lonely college professor (Richard Jenkins) in The Visitor who changes lives, not least his own, when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants in New York. Win Win revolves around Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a lawyer/wrestling coach in New Jersey, who reluctantly takes in Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a young man  who has left his Ohio home to be with his grandfather Leo (Burt Young). The only problem is that said relative, suffering from early-onset dementia, is now in a nursing home, which leaves Kyle with few options but to move in with Flaherty and his family. What McCarthy does with this seemingly thin tale is nothing short of miraculous.

The strength and appeal of McCarthy’s movies has always been the believability of his characters, and Win Win is no exception. His protagonists are always human scaled, never demonstrating heroics that stretch credibility. They’re also flawed people who can do the wrong thing, not least Mike, who commits an unethical act early in the film that is shocking in its casualness. It's a courageous move because that sets the audience against the movie’s main character, the titular ‘hero’ of the story. It turns out that Mike has his reasons for doing what he does, tied in as it is to his failing law practice and the economic constraints he feels every day of his life. Win Win doesn’t justify his actions – far from it – but makes them understandable. That understanding is even extended to Kyle’s damaged mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), whose history of addiction has rendered her as something of an operator. She‘s only out for herself, but just maybe has her own reasons for being how she is. It is all tied in to her fractious past with her father. She’s unlikeable, but she’s not an easy villain. Win Win never even explains whether Leo, in fact, did mistreat his daughter or whether he just couldn’t cope with her acting out; a refreshing withholding of information that allows the viewer to make up his or her own mind about Cindy and her motives. Win Win is full of such omissions and also a slow parceling out of information, occasionally just in quick asides, a cinematic approach which brings each of its characters to life in slow, subtle ways.

Amy Ryan and Alex Shaffer
Admittedly, that’s not always satisfying. We’d like to know more about Flaherty’s coaching partner, the bitter Stephen “Vig” Vigman (Jeffery Tambor); his contentious relationship with his stepson; and whether Flaherty’s angry best friend, Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale), was really wronged by a cheating ex-wife – but McCarthy doesn’t reveal all his secrets. (The stepson and ex-wife remain off-screen characters only.) That’s because he’s more interested in focusing on Flaherty and Kyle’s families, but it’s also a deft juggling of many balls, utilizing the supporting cast to flesh out and enrich the film’s main story: how Mike rescues Kyle from a possibly dead-end existence through re-discovering Kyle’s prowess as a high school wrestler, and learns something valuable about himself in the process. That sounds trite but, unlike so many Hollywood movies, it rings true.

I think, however, that Win Win wouldn’t have been half as effective as it is if it didn’t feature Alex Shaffer. As Kyle, this young actor makes an extraordinary film debut. Portraying that rarity on screen, a genuinely sensitive and good kid, he appears monosyllabic, even dull, when we first meet him, but gradually opens up as he interacts more and more with Mike and his family and the grandfather he never knew. It’s a terrific performance, the most convincing portrait of teenage angst and confusion since Claire Danes’s brilliant incarnation of Angela Chase on the short lived TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95). Almost all the kids in the film, in fact, are good, untroubled souls, a reality we rarely see in an age of depicted screwed up teens in everything from 90210 to Pretty Little Liars, but perhaps much more truthful than we generally acknowledge.

The rest of the cast lives up to Shaffer’s acting, though as with Barney’s Version, Giamatti's fine, but he isn’t exactly stretching himself. I was more impressed with Amy Ryan’s riveting performance as Mike’s loyal but tough wife who develops her own, touching bond with Kyle. Bobby Cannavale’s Terry, a lost soul who doesn’t always say the right thing in social situations, brings some welcome humour to the film, particularly when he displaces Vig as Mike’s coaching partner, causing the latter to seethe with impotent jealousy. Burt Young, still best known for the Rocky movies where he played Rocky's brother-in-law, stands out as the crusty Leo, as does Nina Arianda, in her small role as Mike’s quirky secretary, Shelley. The film, which is set in the borough of New Providence, New Jersey, McCarthy’s hometown, soft pedals its depiction of an economically bereft America;. We know things are tough, but McCarthy is more interested in how Mike and his circle of friends and family get by from day to day. Like The Visitor, which assailed America’s newly toughened post 9/11 immigration laws as refracted though the folks most affected by them, but minus that movie’s sometimes contrived plotting, Win Win skillfully balances its small and the large canvases. It’s about the way we live now unveiled through the normal lives and deeds of a small slice of American society. Modest and simple in intent, Win Win will stay with you.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

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