I can’t tell if Thomas McCarthy’s most admirable talent is writing in such a way his characters feel real, or if it’s his ability to cast the perfect actors to bring those characters to life. Or, perhaps it’s his ability as a director to frame his stories in such a way that they feel about as authentic as a fictional drama can. Either way he has once again accomplished what he previously achieved with The Station Agent and The Visitor with Win Win, a human drama so well acted, written and directed even it’s flaws are able to be overlooked.
Mike and Jackie Flaherty (Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan) lead pretty standard lives in the small town of New Providence, New Jersey. She’s a housewife with two kids and he’s an attorney who moonlights as the wrestling coach at the local high school. However, Mike’s law practice is struggling at the moment and he’s in need of some extra dough. A fact that may be less disconcerting if it weren’t for the aging boiler in his office basement tolling as if right out of the pages of John Donne’s “Meditation XVII.”
Hoping to keep his cash flow struggles from his wife, Mike happens on an opportunity allowing him to serve as the legal guardian to one of his rich elderly clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young). Not having time to actually perform these duties, he sets the man up in a retirement home against his wishes and begins collecting the checks. A despicable act, and one McCarthy doesn’t ignore on top of complicating matters further by introducing one final element to the story.
Enter Kyle (played by newcomer Alex Shaffer), Leo’s never-before-seen grandson who’s come to visit his grandfather after running away from home. With Leo in a retirement home rather than in his actual home, the only choice Mike and Jackie have is to welcome Kyle into their home, which is when the fun starts.
Shaffer plays Alex with a lackadaisical approach to life. Something is bothering him, but he’s pushed it down deep. He’s been hurt by too many people in his life to have much of a care, though he’s careful to trust anyone. In this way, elements of Win Win are rather cliched in how certain scenarios play out, but the film holds together as McCarthy is able to invest the audience in the idea of the adapted family unit he’s creating.
Giamatti delivers a performance we’ve pretty much come to expect from him whenever he plays one of these similarly designed everymen. But he brings so much character to his roles they never feel as repetitive as they otherwise would. Playing his opposite, however, Amy Ryan is a star.
While there’s a measure of growing up in all of the characters here, the heart of the film and true emotional core of the family falls on Jackie’s shoulders. When she finally busts out the L-word near the end of the film it hits like a ton of bricks — delivered in a matter-of-fact way, without embellishment and with a true sense of compassion. Perfect.
I should also mention the performances of Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which delivered an outstanding performance as a hot dog vendor in McCarthy’s The Station Agent and he brings a similar amount of life to this picture. Although here, Cannavale’s character occasionally takes things a bit too far, hurting the believability of some of the scenes he’s in due to a rather transparent attempt at humor.
Win Win delivers the idea of what it means to be a family, blood related or not. While the film moves forward to an inevitable conclusion, it has a few surprises up its sleeve and should be commended for its ability to create fleshed out characters, many of which give the impression they could actually exist in our world rather than merely in a fictional one.