“Win Win,” a poignant film from Jersey-born writer and director Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”), hit screens in Philadelphia April 1. This film is a well-executed character study that will strike a chord with many movie-goers.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a typical respectable suburbanite. He is the man who will slap his daughter on the hand when she tries to take money from the church’s collection plate; the guy who will volunteer to coach the wrestling squad at the local high school; the guy who will do anything for his family. Flaherty also happens to be the guy who is hiding something.
“Some people couch the fact that they have a family and they have to protect their family by any means necessary,” McCarthy said, speaking of his inspiration for Flaherty. “They use that as an excuse for doing what they do, even if on some level they know that’s wrong. [It is people like Flaherty] that I find very interesting.”
Flaherty is a family man and an attorney with financial woes living in a normal town in New Jersey with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two young daughters. When his client Leo (Burt Young), who suffers from dementia, is on the verge of being put in a nursing home, Flaherty steps up and becomes his legal guardian – to collect on the monthly $1,500 check from the state. However, knowing he doesn’t have the time to look after Leo, Flaherty places him in a nursing home anyway. The plot deepens when Leo’s estranged grandson Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer, arrives in New Jersey to see his grandfather.
With Leo in a home, Flaherty and his wife are left with no choice but to welcome the seemingly kind yet rough-around-the-edges Kyle into their home. While staying in the Flaherty home, Kyle has what is presumably his first experience with a real family unit.
This family dynamic continues to be a common theme in McCarthy’s films, many of which focus on surrogate families and outsiders in new environments.
“I don’t know the answers to why that [subject] appeals to me,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if it was something I read as a kid, or something I’m lacking in, or something I’m searching for. Someday I’ll figure it out.”
Kyle is an onion of a character, and the audience learns something new about him with each layer that is peeled off. Visiting New Jersey because his deadbeat mother entered a drug rehabilitation center, Kyle is revealed to be a stud wrestler — a fact that just might save Flaherty’s awful team of struggling wrestlers.
“Win Win” feels like an inverted sports movie in the sense that what is happening in the gym is secondary to what is happening outside of it. It features plenty of wrestling, which slows the pace down from time to time, but as the team advances and improves, so does the film — all the way to the final match.
McCarthy, who started his career as an actor, shows his impeccable ear for dialogue in “Win Win.” The give and take between the characters is more penetrating than the grappling on gym mats.
One particular scene in which Flaherty sits with his family in a Catholic Church resonated with me. As I watched him sitting in the pews, he became a very relatable character. He was not begging for forgiveness; he was just an everyman trying to do the right thing, constantly wrestling with his decisions. That is the type of character seen too little in the films of today.
“Win Win” may not be a great film, but it is certainly worth a look and, with its April 1 release date, it fills a void between the end of the Oscar films and the beginning of the summer popcorn flicks.