Sundance Review: Tom McCarthy’s Win Win


Win Win
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer

Rating: 8/10

Tom McCarthy, the character actor turned filmmaker behind previous Sundance hits “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” makes his third appearance at the festival with potentially his most commercial film yet, but without losing any of the warmth and charm that makes his previous two films such winners.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a Jersey lawyer who coaches high school wrestling in his spare time, but he’s suffering from the stress of making ends meet to support his growing family and keep his private firm alive. He sees an opportunity to solve his problems when his wealthy client Leo, who is showing the early signs of dementia, needs a guardian; Mike kindly takes on the job for the monthly commission that comes with it. Things get more complicated when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, running away after his mother has been sent to rehab, and Mike agrees to take him in. When Kyle shows that he has wrestling skills that can save Mike’s losing team, you have the film’s title right there.

“Win Win” branches away from McCarthy’s first two movies in that it’s not about secluded loners–Giamatti’s character has a family and many people around him–though it continues the theme of having people from different walks of life being brought together by circumstance, which he’s done so well. At first, it seems like the focus of the story will be on Mike and his various stress-causing issues–it’s an easy no-brainer role for Giamatti–but once Kyle shows up, it turns into a full-on ensemble that gives the entire cast their own moments.

This is best exemplified by the casting of Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife Jackie, a role that might have been marginalized in the hands of another actress. At first, she’s nervous about having the troubled teen around but she soon warms up to him and has some nice scenes with the young actor. Ryan is proving herself to be an actress on par with a young Diane Keaton, able to transition between the equally humorous and dramatic nature of the story.

Even funnier is Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend Terry, an overzealous man-child who literally steals every scene he’s in with his great delivery, making the most of the character and the gag of him wanting to be a part of Kyle’s success as a wrestler. Newcomer Alex Shaffer isn’t bad as Kyle, a role that requires a lot from a young actor, but he does feel like the weak link at times, especially against so many vets.

The film really finds its footing in the second act once Kyle joins Mike’s wrestling team and it turns into a crowd-pleasing sports movie, but when Leo’s estranged daughter and Kyle’s Mom (Melanie Lynskey) shows up in town looking to get her father’s money, things turn darker and more dramatic. By then, you’re already involved with the characters’ lives and you remain on Mike’s side even if it’s obvious that he has motivations as selfish as Kyle’s mother.

“Win Win” shows further growth in McCarthy as a filmmaker with a story that involves more characters and subplots, yet it feels like he’s able to pull things together for a far more satisfying third act than his previous films. Mixing humor and drama is always the hardest aspect of making a film that can simultaneously entertain and move audiences, and McCarthy has now proven three times that he knows what he’s doing. The bigger studios would be wise to get McCarthy to nurture one of their high concept comedies or give him the money to do whatever he wants to do next, because “Win Win” is the type of hat trick that proves McCarthy’s worth as a filmmaker who really knows what modern audiences want to see.