Win Win arrives in the UK on the back of a significant amount of praise from US reviewers, with comparisons to other hugely successful comedies produced by Fox Searchlight such as Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, Juno, and the recent Cedar Rapids.
There should be some sort of label for this burgeoning sub-genre of sentimental, low-key indie comedy: the best I’ve come across so far is cinepassion.org’s “Sundance-calibrated sitcom”, coined in a sniffy review of Little Miss Sunshine.
That’s a good way of articulating the slightly formulaic, calculated feel that is creeping into these movies: every one features a broadly amusing story conceit with a kooky, flawed hero at the centre. The film will be populated by earthy and unvarnished looking character actors (so people know it’s an independent film). There will be moments of intense poignancy, but ultimately, the overall tone is an uplifting one, as our cast of weirdos inevitably triumphs over adversity.
The whole selling point of the indie comedy-drama is its supposed quirkiness, its idiosyncrasy. Watching a Fox Searchlight movie marks you out from the chumps in the screen next door chortling at the latest Jim Carrey movie as an altogether more discerning viewer. But it’s manufactured eccentricity. There’s just as much box-ticking going on as there is in supposedly more mainstream fare.
That’s not to say that when it’s done right, this formula isn’t hugely effective – Sideways and Rushmore fit this model and they’re two of my favourite films of recent years – but when it isn’t, it can come off as twee and irritating. Worse still, if in a comedy-drama the comedy isn’t funny enough and the drama isn’t dramatic enough, it’s in danger of ending up just being a comedy with no jokes.
Unfortunately, despite boasting a magnificent cast, a comedy with no jokes is probably an apt way to describe Win Win.
Loving family man Mike Flanery (Paul Giamatti) practices law in a New Jersey suburb, whilst using his spare time to volunteer as his local school wrestling coach. His best friend is the successful yet lonely divorcee Terry (Bobby Cannavale), an ex-high school wrestler who desperately to work as part of the wrestling coaching team. Unbeknownst to wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), his struggling practice has left him in dire financial straits. As a last resort, he become the legal guardian of Leo, one of his elderly clients (Burt Young), which allows him to utilise a financial and legal loophole and collect a monthly allowance while putting said client in a rest home.
Unfortunately, his perfect crime hits a snag when Leo’s borderline delinquent grandson Kyle shows up on his doorstep, on the run from his distant mother and abusive stepfather. Initially, the awkward and slightly abrasive Kyle rubs up against the perfect family life of Mike and Jackie, but when Kyle reveals himself to be a naturally gifted wrestler, Mike’s attitude towards him begins to soften…
Win Win is to be admired (and indeed, has been in the US) for dispensing with most of the usual dramatic shorthands – criminal activity, sociopathic characters, brooding melodrama, violence – and focusing instead on the problems and issues that are affecting a modern middle-class family.
Unfortunately, the novelty of this spotlight on the ordinary isn’t enough to sustain the film. The characters aren’t developed enough, and the tone isn’t consistent enough to produce a satisfying film. For example, there are a couple of characters who skirt the line of caricature. Bobby Cannavale is playing a much broader version of the Thomas Haden Church role from Sideways, and Kyle’s classmate Stemler is the classic downtrodden nerd that we’ve seen a hundred times in other high school movies.
They’re both clearly intended as comic relief (as is Jeffrey Tambor, who is criminally underused as Mike’s assistant coach), but neither of them have a single funny line or unusual moment of note.
Also, their broad strokes do not sit well with the more naturalistic performances in the film. In particular, Alex Shaffer as Kyle gives an awkward, mumbling anti-performance (reminiscent of a similar performance from James Frecheville in fantastic Australian drama Animal Kingdom) that is comfortably one of the most interesting things about Win Win, but it feels like a performance from another, more interesting film.
Having said that, the performances are all generally excellent. Giamatti in particular continues to prove to be one of the great living screen actors. The emotion he can convey with just his face is truly astonishing, and it is him that comes closest to fully engaging you into the story of Win Win.
But the material is just so thin. The plot is predictable, and the stakes are never truly high enough to truly pique the interest. Focusing on the middle-class family is not in and of itself admirable: there is little in the way of insight. It’s not that family life doesn’t make an interesting topic, either. You only have to look to actual sit-coms like King of the Hill, Outnumbered, and Modern Family to see stories about families produced with genuine pathos and drama, while still being really funny.
Comedy is obviously a subjective thing – to paraphrase Roger Ebert, you can’t argue with somebody if they’re laughing. I find, however, that these comedy-dramas are even more subjective. They rely on quirkiness and charm, which are elements that depend even more upon personal preference than outright broad humour. There is no telling what will be endearing to some and off-putting to others.
Win Win has charmed a lot of people, but sadly it didn’t charm me. This a well-made film, with some excellent performances, but ultimately I didn’t find anything in it to engage me at any point. Regrettably, Win Win is only so-so.