Win Win
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring: Paul Giamatti,
Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, Alex Shaffer
Rated R for language
1 hr. 46 min.

It’s said that good things often come in threes. This is certainly the case with Win Win, director Tom McCarthy’s third release. McCarthy likes to feature lonely men in his films. Peter Dinklage as the solitary dwarf in The Station Agent,  Richard Jenkins as the lonely professor in The Visitor. The difference here is that attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is not solitary, but he does carry a secret. So, while he lives closer to civilization, it’s still the same solitude, only more painful because of what he knows and can’t say.

Mike has a law practice in a small New Jersey town that specializes in tending to legal matters for the elderly. The trouble is that his client calendar is full of empty space. But that’s not all. His office is falling apart, he has a wife and two kids to care for, and he coaches a local high school wrestling team that is so bad, one of his wrestlers is afraid to wrestle. Needless to say, Mike would do anything to survive.

His opportunity comes one day during a court date with one of his clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young). Leo has dementia and needs a state-appointed guardian. Mike knows his client is loaded and volunteers to take on his guardianship, not because he’s a charitable guy, but because he knows there’s a large monthly check attached to the deal. Of course, no one else knows about this. Mike takes the money, pockets it, and moves the old man to a local retirement center. No muss, no fuss.

His caper works well enough until he drives over to Leo’s house one Sunday afternoon and finds Leo’s 16-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) sitting on the doorstep. The kid has traveled from Ohio to see his grandfather and, with his mother in drug rehab, has nowhere else to go. Mike feels for the young man and decides, with the reluctant blessing of his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), to let him stay at their house. Then he discovers another surprise. Kyle is an expert wrestler. For Mike, his team of losers finally has . . . hope.

So far, so good, but wait. In a Shakespearean twist, Kyle’s mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), shows up clean and sober with an attorney to ask for her fair share of her father’s estate. Mike must dance and weave around that dilemma. What’s worse, Kyle begins to look up to Mike as his wrestling coach. Mike must encourage his star pupil even while he behaves deviously.

What keeps this film from becoming too dark is its humor — as if watching someone twist in the wind, fall on his face, then get up and apologize is actually funny because, well, it’s just human nature, and if we can’t laugh at ourselves in our worst moments, then what’s the point? So the sharp and often uproarious dialogue keeps the tone light enough to bear up under the film’s weight.

There’s also a great cast assembled around the heartfelt performance by Giamatti. Ryan as Mike’s outspoken wife, Jackie, Burt Young (Yo! Rocky!) as the elderly Leo Poplar, and two hysterical performances by Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as Stephen and Terry, Giamatti’s bewildered assistant coaches.

Add to this the admirable debut performance by real life high school wrestler Alex Shaffer, who manages to capture both the body and soul of Kyle. Tough. Vulnerable. Good-hearted. Put it all together and you end up with a wonderful film about life, honesty and forgiveness.

Win Win is one of those quiet films that makes you laugh, even as it strikes very close to home. And that’s the secret to McCarthy’s films. They explore the dark borders of life and find a little light — enough, like this film, to keep smiling and carry on.   

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