Mike Flaherty is a family man with a loving wife and two children, but gains very little satisfaction from life. His ability to enjoy his family life is hindered by the stress he suffers as a result of a failing law practice he runs, threatening his ability to provide for his family, and the wrestling team he coaches being spectacularly awful.
When an opportunity presents itself for him to earn some extra money by taking guardianship of one of his clients, who has recently starting showing signs of dementia, he takes it as it seems like easy money. The guy hasn’t heard from his daughter in years, and has no friends or family, so Mike puts him in a care home and switches the power off in his house. Easy money, or so he thinks.
Soon his client’s grandson, a troubled kid on the run from a drug addicted mother, shows up. Mike feels obligated to look after him for a short time, but becomes much more enthusiastic when he discovers that the kid is in fact an extremely talented wrestler. It seems like an ideal situation, as his financial problems are eased, and his team is no-longer a laughing stock. But, how long can he keep the truth of the situation from those he cares about?
With two brilliant writer/directorial efforts to his name, actor turned filmmaker, Thomas McCarthy’s third feature, Win Win, was a film that I had wanted to see for some time, but didn’t have the opportunity to until it came up for review. It seemed like a long wait between 2008’s The Visitor and this film last year, aside from a number of performances in that time, as well as script work on Pixar’s Up.
As with his previous efforts, Win Win is a fairly low key affair that encapsulates a lot of the themes that have typified American indie cinema of the past decade. Certainly, those films that seem to be breakout hits. But, as with McCarthy’s previous films, Win Win never seems manipulative, derivative (despite being familiar), or anything less than completely genuine. One of the greatest strengths of Win Win is that it never feels anything less than completely truthful. It’s a brilliant example of the performances by the cast perfectly complementing the material they’re working with. Giamatti, Amy Ryan and newcomer, Alex Schaffer, have received much of the praise, and quite rightly so as they’re all brilliant, but there isn’t a weak link in the film.
The performance from Alex Schaffer is incredibly strong, and one of the finest debuts that I’ve seen for some time. His performance encapsulates the tone of the film. His easy going performance seems almost effortless throughout. Much has been made of the fact that McCarthy chose to hire a wrestler with a bit of acting experience rather than vice versa, which could have backfired considering that the film relies on Schaffer’s performance. But the young actor absolutely nails it throughout, and not just in the wrestling scenes, of which there are many.
Giamatti’s character is a deeply flawed person, but one that has the best interests of his family and those he cares about at heart. Taking guardianship of someone and their estate purely for financial gain is undoubtedly morally questionable, as is being enthusiastic about taking a child into your home purely to benefit from his wrestling ability. But, even with such questionable acts occurring, Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty remains a likeable character and a large part of that is down to the quality of his performance. Sure, it’s entertaining to see him when he’s hamming it up gloriously in films such as Ironclad, but he’s at his best when he’s low key and truthful as he is here, and it’s these kinds of performances that demonstrate that he’s one of the finest American actors working today.
Whilst this is far from the most challenging piece of American indie cinema you’re likely to see, Thomas McCarthy’s ability to create amiable, funny and heart-warming tales of American life is further demonstrated here, as is his focus on loveable outsiders. It’s another deeply humanistic piece of filmmaking where the only thing that really detracts from the film is that it is almost too amiable at times for its own good. There are moments where I’d have liked a little more edge or bite from the film, particularly in some of the more dramatic moments, but ultimately the film doesn’t seem concerned with that and chooses to charm the audience instead.
Some films set out to challenge their audiences, either intellectually or by showing them something they haven’t seen before, but Win Win doesn’t concern itself with such things. The film will show you nothing that you haven’t seen before, and is unlikely to challenge you, but that’s not to its detriment. The familiarity of events depicted here are one of the films strengths, and demonstrate that familiarity, if done well, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There’s a decent selection of extras here which, whilst short, do a decent job of enhancing the feature as they discuss the film and characters in some detail, some of which are based on material shot at Sundance. In addition to the short features there are a couple of deleted scenes that add very little, and, as is often the case with such things, you can see why they were cut, and best of all, there’s a music video by The National.
The strength of the film more than justifies the purchase, but the addition of a few decent extras here make the purchase of Win Win a no brainer.