'Win-Win': A Go-For-It Movie With Dissonant Notes

Win Win questions just how far small-town lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, left) will go to ensure a winning team. He has taken in a client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) — a talented but troubled teen. i i

Win Win questions just how far small-town lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, left) will go to ensure a winning team. He has taken in a client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) — a talented but troubled teen. Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight
Win Win questions just how far small-town lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, left) will go to ensure a winning team. He has taken in a client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) — a talented but troubled teen.

Win Win questions just how far small-town lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, left) will go to ensure a winning team. He has taken in a client's grandson (Alex Shaffer) — a talented but troubled teen.

Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight

Win Win

  • Director: Tom McCarthy
  • Genre: Sports Drama
  • Running Time: 106 minutes

Rated R for language

With: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Shaffer

Few trajectories on film are as compelling as the journey from intense isolation to the embrace of a surrogate family — an arc that's Tom McCarthy's specialty. In his blessedly serene comedy The Station Agent, the dwarf protagonist (Peter Dinklage) arrives in a small New Jersey town, silent and unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down — and then begins to attract a band of outcasts who warm up his world.

McCarthy's next film, The Visitor, featured Richard Jenkins as an emotionally closed-down economics professor who's thrown together with a bunch of illegal immigrants — and lo, he comes out of his shell and creates a new family.

And the director's terrific new comedy, Win Win, opens, of course, with a lonely loser.

He's Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti at his most likably schlubby, a suburban New Jersey attorney with two daughters — one an infant — who can't pay his bills and can't bring himself to tell the truth to his wife, Jackie, played by Amy Ryan. The first shot of him is from behind on a jogging path as he staggers to a halt and gets passed on either side by a pair of peppy runners. Moonlighting as a high-school wrestling coach, he watches his scrawny, hapless team lose match after match. Mike is a heavy, haunted man — a heart attack waiting to happen.

Then a way out presents itself. He can take $1,500 a month from a near-senile court-appointed client, Leo, played by Burt Young, under the pretense of acting as the old man's guardian. But now he's even more isolated. He has violated his professional and personal ethics. He is a lost soul.

Relief arrives in the guise of disaster. Leo's emotionally damaged grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up at his grandfather's house — on the run from his druggie mom and her abusive boyfriend, and circumstances lead to his moving into the Flahertys' basement. At first, Mike's wife, Jackie, is scared of the kid, with his bleached hair and one black eye and eerily flat demeanor. But when she hears about his past, she gets riled.

Amy Ryan plays Jackie, the wife of schlubby New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti. i i

Amy Ryan plays Jackie, the wife of schlubby New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti. Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight
Amy Ryan plays Jackie, the wife of schlubby New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti.

Amy Ryan plays Jackie, the wife of schlubby New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti.

Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight

Win Win is a symphony of marvelous voices, including Shaffer's. In his acting debut, he has a stoner drone that suggests a kid whose emotions are pushed way down. As luck — and of course McCarthy's slickness — has it, Kyle turns out to be an accomplished high-school wrestler. As he joins Mike's team and turns the season around, we're blind-sided — as in The Blind Side.

But like that other indie winner Little Miss Sunshine, Win Win is a go-for-it movie with all kinds of dissonant notes. That's what saves it from being cloying. Before Kyle wrestles, he insists that Mike give him a hard slap across the face to "wake him up." It's funny, because Mike is such a gentle soul and can't believe what he's doing — and funnier still when others on the team request a slapping, too. But the subtext is ghastly. It suggests that Kyle's wrestling talents are fueled by abuse. When his mother shows up, he leaps out windows to avoid her. Played by Melanie Lynskey — best known for her role opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures — she has a breathy, seductive little voice with a touch of Marilyn Monroe but a beady eye on the main chance.

There's tension all through Win Win: We fear that Mike will get caught for his financial fraud — yet on some level we want him to be caught, to own up for his soul's sake and the sake of the family that now includes Kyle. Is a win-win scenario even possible? The title gives you a hint.

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