From the director of The Visitor and The Station Agent comes yet another well-made personal drama, this one starring Paul Giamatti as a financially strapped lawyer and high school wrestling coach who finds inspiration literally on his doorstep. Win Win is one of the best movies of the year so far.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, who, nearly bankrupt, makes the immoral decision to become the legal guardian of one of his court-appointed clients, an aging man facing early symptoms of dementia. He immediately puts the man in an assisted living him so he doesn't have to deal with him, but as his guardian is automatically entitled to a $1,500 stipend every month.
Then one day the man's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer, in his acting debut) appears, having fled an undesirable living situation with his drug-addicted mom and her abusive boyfriend. While the sudden arrival of the kid is at first seen as a disruption to Mike and his family, he soon learns that Kyle is an excellent wrestler and sets out to actually win for a change.
Win Win, while still very intimate and character-driven, is much more energetic than Thomas McCarthy's other films. To say it is better wouldn't be accurate - it requires less emotional investment than, say, The Visitor - but Win Win is a little lighter, a little more entertaining for entertainment's sake. McCarthy has kept many of the same ingredients but changed the proportions, the final product still great, just different.
Giamatti is excellent in the lead, a man who cares and wants to be good but who, based on his actions alone is by no means perfect. He was better in Barney's Version, which came to theaters just a couple months earlier, but the actor has had so many good performances over the years, why squabble?
Shaffer also delivers a fine performance. According to IMDB, he has never acted before and does not have anything set for the future, but he tackles the most challenging and intriguing character in the story with incredible discipline. He is at once emotionally muted and bursting with feeling, his anger and frustration bubbling just below the surface. Shaffer handles the role like a pro.
Win Win is a well-acted, superbly written drama that hits all the right notes. It isn't overpowering by any means - McCarthy stays well away from melodrama - but Win Win grabs hold in the first minute and entertains until the closing credits. The movie is one of the best movies of the year, but it'll will be interesting to see if anyone remembers it come award season. It has all the right pieces, but due to its early year release date and low key story, it might not have to garner the attention it deserves.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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