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With: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins, Clare Foley
Written by: Tom McCarthy, based on a story by Tom McCarthy, Joe Tiboni
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 106
Date: 01/21/2011

Win Win (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Full Nelson

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The writer/director Tom McCarthy has delivered three solid indie dramedies in a row. While on paper these movies seem like quirky, formula indies, they're much better than that. They tend to resonate longer than one might expect. The Station Agent (2003) was a neat little package about three lonely souls connecting in an unlikely place. The Visitor (2008) continued that theme, but managed to burrow more deeply into a new emotional place. Win Win is perhaps still better. I had the opportunity to see it twice in one week, and I found it growing ever deeper and more interesting as it went along.

Unlike the lost, lonely souls of the first two movies, New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) feels like he belongs. He has a lovely, firecracker wife (Amy Ryan) and a couple of kids. In his job, he takes care of old people; he makes very little money but at least he feels like he does the right thing. In the afternoons, he coaches high school wrestling. His team always loses, but he tries. He has the usual additional troubles. An old tree threatens to fall and crush his house, and an old boiler threatens to blow up his office.

One of his clients, Leo (Burt Young), is wealthy and is beginning to battle dementia. Mike decides to become Leo's guardian in order to collect a monthly $1500 paycheck. Then he sticks Leo in a rest home. This plan begins working, until Leo's grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) turns up. It might be easy enough to get rid of him, except for the fact that he happens to be a champion wrestler...

As you can see, for a quirky indie dramedy, Win Win isn't exactly easy to sum up or pitch in one sentence, which reveals how deceptively complex it is. It could be a modern Jean Renoir movie in which characters try to decide what's right and what's wrong. I haven't even had the chance to mention Mike's best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who at first seems like nothing more than comic relief, but who is really a good deal more pivotal. Unlike the schlubby Mike, Terry is divorced and very slick; he lives in a clean, white apartment and seems to have all the latest gizmos and toys. Terry is the one that helps point Mike down the wrong path with the attitude of "it's a sign! This stuff is just being handed to you! It would be dumb not to take it!"

And indeed, there's something to be said for this mentality, which is running rampant right now in American culture (and is more carefully explained in the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job), but I'm less interested in that stuff than I am in the overall emotional messiness of this movie. I love all the little life details here that just go nowhere, such as the fact that Mike's partner -- and assistant wrestling coach -- Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) has a stepson that was once on the wrestling team but quit. Or the fact that Mike stops to say hello to one of his elderly neighbors and asks "how's the foot?" None of these details are important to the plot, but they are important to the lives of the characters.

I see that there's so much more I haven't gone into, such as the appealingly weird, monotone performance by Shaffer, a real wrestler, or by Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's mom, who seems to live mainly by the pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, there's an interesting cross here between the movie's physical aspects and its emotional ones, and just the fact that it understands those concepts is wonderful. This kind of filmmaking is painfully rare in America, and it's something of a minor miracle that McCarthy was able to fool investors into funding this movie; happily it's good enough and, frankly, winning enough that audiences will likely take to it and return the favor.

This wonderful little film is very much worth seeing again. Fox's Blu-Ray has a warm, clear feel. It comes with just a few short extras, a conversation with director McCarthy and his longtime pal/co-writer Joe Tiboni, a funny little featurette with actor David Thompson ("Stemler"), two deleted scenes, some studio-produced featurettes, and a lovely music video for "Think You Can Wait" by The National.

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