As a family drama whose most inspiring character is an outsider and a sports comedy where the most significant wins and losses occur outside the gymnasium, Tom McCarthy’s newest is a small treasure that tweaks the conventions of familiar stories just enough to make something that is entirely his own. Win Win is a funny, warmhearted movie filled with the ordinary, though richly drawn characters that have become McCarthy’s trademark.
Paul Giamatti is Mike, and he’s in a rut. His New Jersey law practice isn’t doing well, he’s hiding his bad financial situation from his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), the wrestling team he coaches hasn’t won a match all season, and constant stress is wearing down his body. When the opportunity arises for him to assume guardianship for one of his clients, a wealthy old man in the early stages of dementia named Leo, he jumps at the opportunity that will net him $1500 a month. Though assuring the court that he will allow Leo to stay in his own house, Mike instead moves him to an assisted living facility, collecting the monthly checks without having to keep much of an eye on the confused old man who just wants to go home.
As the checks start coming in and bills can finally be paid, Mike’s life shows signs of improvement. That’s precisely the moment 16-year-old Kyle, the son of Leo’s estranged daughter, shows up in town. Kyle’s mother is in an Ohio rehab center and, instead of staying with her scummy boyfriend, he decides to catch a bus to New Jersey to stay with the grandfather he’s never met. Though Mike initially tries to treat the situation as a day-long interference, Kyle (in a nearly perfect debut performance by Alex Shaffer) is quickly discovered to be in need or more than a mere night away from home. And much to the delight of Mike and his two best friends/assistant coaches (Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale), Kyle is a champion wrestler, but with his talent comes family issues that may disrupt Mike’s guardianship.
Win Win moves at just the right pace while balancing the stories of Mike’s home, work, and coaching lives – each becoming increasingly complicated and intertwined once Kyle arrives. His presence is a necessary disruption in everyone’s life, and the cast is uniformly excellent at conveying the humor and heartbreak in all of their new wins and losses. These are characters who, though not always making the right decisions, are so intricately developed and performed that we can’t help but root for them when they’re down.
McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) has now made three movies about adults who are down on their luck, only to find themselves settling back into a quiet happiness after the introduction and reluctantly formed friendship of a surprise visitor. His movies have a way of ending without stopping, fading to black in the middle of perfectly realized moments between people who will continue living, breathing, losing, and winning long after we’ve finished rooting for them.