Win Win is a wonderful film that doesn't cover any new ground. Telling a story of simple people with simple problems -- simple in the movie world. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is an attorney who is struggling to keep his firm running, he has a loving wife (Amy Ryan) and two daughters. In a desperate attempt to help his family's financial situation, Mike takes up being the guardian of one of his older, wealthy clients (Burt Young), who also happens to be suffering from dementia. What Mike doesn't expect is for his client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) to literally show up on his doorstep. At first, Mike tries to send the boy back, but after letting him stay and realizing the boy's wrestling talents he sees this as an opportunity to bring some direction into his life. With Mike being the local high school's wrestling coach he brings Kyle, who happens to be a wrestling prodigy, onto his team who hasn't won a match in years.
There is a lot going on in this little film, tackling subjects that will hit some very soft spots for today's audiences; people in all kinds of situations dealing with money issues, kids being caught up in harsh times making their lives more difficult than they should be. All sensitive subjects that are as relatable as anything you will see in a film.
Set in New Jersey where the wealthy live in much of the same areas as the lower to middle classes. All sorts of characters, director John McCarthy makes his characters so real that it feels like you could reach out and touch them. McCarthy, when not making guest performances in films and television shows, has dedicated his entire directing career to studying characters you could bump into on any street who are dealing with situations that could easily come anyone's way. His directorial debut, The Station Agent (2003), is his most critically praised. Following a "dwarf" who loves railroads, a drink stand operator, and an artist who find out that within their differences they are really quite alike. That is his theme; people in very different situations who discover they are similar in many ways. McCarthy's script does not try anything special, when looking at it just on paper it is pretty forgettable, but how it is used to create realism and to flow with the characters is fantastic. Nothing necessarily new is used at any point in this film, just a perfectly satisfying mix of characters and story.
Paul Giamatti is undoubtedly the star, he weaves us in and our of a very familiar world. As the family man who makes a drastic decision that attacks his morals to help his family, he is sensational. He takes these simple roles and takes them to heights not many other actors could. But what do you know, it is Alex Shaffer as the tortured teenager Kyle who touches us. His detached, unstable performance is as hard to read as it is heartbreaking. This being his debut film, Mr. Shaffer has an mature understanding that is perfectly used in his character, never will you look at quiet, troubled kids the same again. Supporting Giamatti and Shaffer are a handful of smaller performances make this a film of character delights. Some of those great supporting roles include Amy Ryan as Mike's good-natured, but oblivious, wife, Bobby Cannavale as Mike's childhood friend Terry, and David Thompson as Kyle's wonderfully quirky friend, Stemler. All of this actors have such wonderfully chemistry which leads to some side-splitting comedy and tear-jerking emotion.
I will say that I was skeptical at the start, but quickly I warmed to the film's sympathetic and realistic intentions. Going from a very quick pace at the start which allows us to see just how fast things can get away from you, then making a nice transition to slow character building. Also, there were multiple occasions where I found specific scenes that I have seen done many times in a variety of variations. But it worked, very well too. The drama actually makes sense and doesn't feel forced, with the comedy being natural. Bobby Cannavale and David Thompson's performances are entirely for comic relief, but they have a shocking resemblance to people I actually know. I love when a film doesn't suffer from creating caricatures of real-life personas.
Sports fans may not enjoy the slightly cliched direction the wrestling side-story goes, but forgetting sports there is a real underdog story going on here. Un-extraordinary characters looking for the "win" in respect to life. Indeed they have dreams, but in the end what each character really wants is just to be happy. Life is tough, figuring that out is the easy part, it is learning how to deal with it that is the real match. Kyle's wrestling is a clever way of symbolizing him being able to control many parts of his life, but no matter how in control he gets something always seems to bring him back to the harsh realities of life. Through Mike's point-of-view it symbolizes his guidance and support of Kyle and his family with the harsh realities of life hitting hit equally as hard.
Even for people who don't look that deep into this film, a wonderful cast of colorful characters lead this story of people looking for happiness. I noticed that someone (I will leave them anonymous) I was watching this film with had a reaction of dissatisfaction to the ending. John McCarthy stays true to his intentions with the ending; it isn't a conclusion that will fully satisfy anyone. Life doesn't fully satisfy anyone. We go through hard times, things don't work out how we plan, that is just how the world works. But if you have people who love you and help you get through the hardships of life then life can have some very lovely perks to it. I know I just got off topic, but that is one of the many simple messages I got out of this sweet little film.
Don't expect to see any major-award nominations for Win Win, but as a complete film it indeed does "win" in my eyes. Effective in how it will reach modern audiences, hilarious in how it pokes fun a real-life, and heartfelt it how characters are created to touch our heard, and that is exactly what they do. It is very likely that this film will fade into the shadows of the big-budget, star-driven films, but I know I will not be forgetting this film, mostly as a result of Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer's brilliant performances. John McCarthy is a bright name to get excited about. His talents with these particular humanist stories of real-life America, show that he shouldn't falter with these type of films anytime soon. Take some time to watch something that leaves out the exaggerated situations and maybe even the explosions to watch something that actually tries to connect to audiences.