Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty is moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. In the process of undertaking some questionable business deadlings to support his family, Flaherty comes across a star athlete. This is a dream come true, but then the boy's broke mother turns up, putting Flaherty's plans at risk.
With just two feature films under his belt, writer/director Tom McCarthy has already garnered a reputation as an excellent judge of character – or, to be precise, characters. With understated wit and poignancy, McCarthy elevated the story device of the unannounced houseguest into two enduring standouts of recent independent American cinema, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008).
In Win Win, McCarthy mines similar territory with another depiction of the transformative impact of strangers. This time, he shifts the tone away from the quiet comedic moments of his earlier work, to aim for broad gags and plot conveniences that are the usual domain of small-screen situational comedy.
Paul Giamatti riffs on the 'weary everyman’ that has become his on-screen persona to inhabit the life of Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer, family man and high school wrestling coach whose general level of success with any of the aforementioned pursuits is middling at best.
Mike personifies that unique human state of 'paralysed proactivity’ – the type of knowing inaction that, frustratingly, is never as easy to justify to others as it is to yourself. Its manifestations have him skulking past the tree that leans ominously towards the front verandah, and throwing protective sheets over his law firm’s document archive as a workaround to an imminent plumbing catastrophe. These small-scale avoidances serve the story to hint at the way Mike is able to reconcile a serious ethical compromise that takes advantage of a senile client, Leo (Burt Young): Mike lobbies for legal guardianship of Leo as a means to receive a monthly carer’s stipend, and promptly contradicts his houseproud new charge’s wishes by shipping the old coot off to a nursing home.
As if to reassure the audience that Mike’s grubby handling of Leo is an uncharacteristic by-product of the economic downturn, McCarthy populates Mike’s world with two plain-talking Jersey natives – a supportive wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan) and an old friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale) – whose inherent decency rubs off like a contact high on Mike and speaks to his general good nature.
Since there is never much doubt that Mike’s misdeeds will be exposed, the dramatic tension lies in the matter of when. The seeds of his eventual undoing are sown in the arrival of Leo’s fractured family: a runaway grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who camps with the Flaherty family as he reacquaints with his grandad; and an addicted and conflicted daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who trails Kyle to claim Power of Attorney over Leo.
Of the two, it’s the defiant teen who subverts the Flaherty’s first impressions (Jackie’s early fears that he could do more than pass for Eminem are unfounded) and his as luck would have it, this rough diamond also happens to be a champion-grade wrestler who teaches Mike a lesson or two about fair play.
Win Win benefits from McCarthy’s obvious affection for his characters and their surrounds, but the easygoing screenplay coasts along on a sea of jovial jocularity, which wears thin over 106 mins. Perhaps it’s a natural consequence of the union of two artists who consistently tackle the same themes/characters, but the irony of the film’s title extends to both Giamatti and McCarthy and falls short of a 'win win’ for either of them.