“Win Win” follows Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a lawyer who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. Strapped for cash, he takes advantage of an elderly client to make a little extra money. But things get complicated when the man’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), whom no one even knew existed, shows up looking for a place to crash.
Giamatti got famous playing the irascible Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” and an endlessly aggrieved writer in “Sideways.” But in “Win Win” he plays a happily married family man with two kids whom he adores, and does it with all the gravits and humanity for which he’s known. Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty isn’t angry or sad, he’s just tired—you can see it in his eyes. And when he commits his ethical misstep, he almost manages to convince you and him that what he’s doing is really OK, cuz no one’s really getting hurt.
Any doubts you may have about what Mike’s done are cleared up almost instantly by his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), the film’s moral compass. Ryan’s Jackie is 100% Jersey Girl, right down to the Bon Jovi tattoo on her ankle, and possesses an immutable sense of Right and Wrong. She is endlessly loving, compassionate and nurturing—until you step out of line.
Rounding out the cast are some the best character actors working: hall-of-fame grump Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale (why he doesn’t get more work is anyone’s guess), Margo Maritndale (you’ve seen here in a million things and she’s currently scare the pants off fans of “Justified”), Burt Young and Melanie Lynskey.
The biggest surprise of the film is the performance turned in by Shaffer, as Kyle, a kid with a checkered past and a junkie mom, who’s trying his damnedest to be a good kid, but hasn’t been getting much help. Shaffer comes in all adolescent moping, shielding himself from the world with his headphones, bangs and cigarettes, communicating mostly in monosyllabic grunts. But as the story progresses, so to does Kyle. By the time the film’s over, he’s gone through trust, acceptance, love, betrayal and rage, and done it all so naturally it’s hard to believe Shaffer had last acted in a sixth-grade production of “Pirates of Penzance.”
This is the third film from writer-director Tom McCarthy, who has shown a rare understanding of human relationships in his previous efforts “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.” McCarthy once again brings people together under peculiar circumstances in “Win Win,” while also delving into that most mundane human dynamic, the nuclear family. He’s a truly talented filmmaker.
“Win Win” is one of those small indie dramadies that is funny and thoughtful, brilliantly acted, and totally accessible and relatable to most everyone, but won’t find a huge audience because it lacks big names, smart-mouthed kids or a parade of scatological humor.