Editor’s note: This review was originally written on February 3rd, 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival
Tom McCarthy can do no wrong. He first captured our hearts with his writing/directing debut, THE STATION AGENT. Then he showed the world Richard Jenkins has the full potential to be a leading man in THE VISITOR (for which Jenkins garnered a well-deserved Oscar nod). And now, in 2011, McCarthy is back with his third feature, a high school wrestling movie with a lot of heart, WIN WIN.
WIN WIN is a story of unlikely people entering each other’s lives. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a lawyer by day, high school wresting coach by night. His practice isn’t very successful (he can’t even afford to fix the plumbing), and he’s not at all in shape (being outran in the opening scene gives us this heads up). He decides to take one of his clients into his care after discovering he can get paid weekly for it, and meets his runaway grandson, child wrestling prodigy Kyle Timmons (newcomer Alex Shaffer). Kyle soon starts wrestling on Flaherty’s team and everything around him begins to look promising again, from the wrestling team to family life. Little known fact: WIN WIN was spawned off McCarthy’s real life friendship with a former high school wrestling teammate.
Tom McCarthy knows the dynamics of friendship and family. WIN WIN is a charming story about making the right choices. As Flaherty is teaching Kyle to do the right thing, we learn he’s wrestling troubles of his own. McCarthy gives balances to real life problems with real life solutions. Sometimes good people make bad decisions and almost always they learn and grow from it.
It’s no shock that Giamatti turns out another fine performance in WIN WIN. Again and again, he puts his all in to everything he does, showing the world how powerful one can be with a set of lines. This man can silence a room with his signature droopy facial expressions. He’s an actor’s actor. The Babe Ruth of thespians.
WIN WIN’s character interactions are what, excuse me, win us over. As Jackie Flaherty (the forever wonderful Amy Ryan) is talking to Kyle about new starts in life, she references her Jon Bon Jovi initialed ankle tattoo - a.k.a. a physical reminder of her rebellious stage. This is one of many small, dynamite interactions in WIN WIN that speak so loudly about how effective real communication can be. When you’re young and feel like the world is against you, it’s nice to know a peer once sat in your spot in life.
Giamatti is aided by Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale. These two very funny actors play Flaherty’s assistant coaches and come so close to completely pulling the mat from under Giamatti’s feet. This is the best (and one of the most unexpected) comedic duos I’ve seen on screen in a very long time. It’s almost as if McCarthy let these two run amok, only telling them to read their lines and spin it how ever the hell they want. If that’s the case, it worked.
WIN WIN makes Tom McCarthy three-for-three. Grabbing the affection from the audience is what he wants, and my dear reader, he can’t lose.