“Win Win” is a sweet if slight film. Its characters are likeable, even when annoying (except for one, who, while played by winsome and likeable actress, is just plain unlikable), its set-up interesting, its action forward-moving at all times. Its potential heft is in the undeniably wrong action by its main character; its greatest weakness in the complete lack of retribution for that act.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a middle class attorney practicing in a middle class neighborhood, his shared offices part of a house for which he and his partner have responsibility (for the ready-to-blow boiler and the backed up toilet, for instance, things that cost money). The day we meet him, Mike has two clients. The first is an elderly man who believes his son has kidnapped his orange tabby cat. The second is a senior citizen living alone in his own house, who is not indigent, but upon whom dementia is creeping. He’s been picked up by the police more than once, not knowing where he was, and is in danger of becoming a ward of the State. This is Leo, played winningly by Burt Young. While Leo can no longer safely live alone at home, he does have money – enough to endow some parks in his neighborhood in his will, and enough to pay a monthly fee to a guardian. And Leo, of course, wants to live in his house, not in an old folks home.
Mike’s home life is happy if presently house-poor. His wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is at home with their two young daughters. She’s smart, loving, and not likely to put up with any nonsense. The tree out front is dead and endangering the house. The health insurance premium check is written out but not yet mailed. And Mike has only two clients. He is stressed, reaching out to friends for overflow work from other practices, but having no luck. He jogs with his polar-opposite friend Terry (an endearing performance by Bobby Cannavale), but it’s not helping. It doesn’t solve his money problems, and he takes clear note of all the people jogging right past him. Giamatti is, after all, our Everyman – he is overweight, a tad whiny, with non-descript features but for the huge eyes always ready to tear up. All those fit people in spandex run past us, too, so we’re right there on his side.
Giamatti’s Mike and his business partner Vigman (the always authentic Jeffrey Tambor) also team up to coach the high school wrestling team, which is on a long losing streak. It is at this point that Mike essentially breaks – after doing an unsuccessful search for Leo’s daughter, with whom Leo’s had no contact in twenty years, he takes on the guardianship of the man, telling the court that it’s so the old man can stay in his house; but then Mike drops him off at the local assisted living facility while pocketing the monthly check. Suddenly he’s relaxed, pushing the guilt of his action to the back closet of his mind. The excuse he gives himself to not be a real guardian to Leo is that he hasn’t time. The man has two clients, he’s got time.
Into this situation walks a bleached blond teenage boy named Kyle, quietly and convincingly played by Alex Shaffer. He is the grandson Leo didn't know he had, he’s got a shiner, he took the bus alone from Ohio to New Jersey to the front stoop of his grandfather’s house. Jackie’s mother instincts kick in all over the place – protect the boy, but also protect her little girls from this unknown teenager. Kyle’s mother’s in a rehab facility in Ohio, and he’d been left with the mother’s boyfriend, which sends Jackie on the warpath against Kyle’s mother. Naturally she becomes the mother Kyle has always needed – mind you, Kyle’s turned out pretty well for having a mother in rehab and no stable father image. Amy Ryan’s terrific here, a wild cat protecting whatever child needs her help.
Meanwhile, in the primary plot, now Mike has to lie to everyone – the boy, the grandfather Leo, his wife, his daughters, as well as the court. Because this is Giamatti, we see the inner torment over the one criminal act that snowballs into many lies. Giamatti’s Mike is kind, tolerant of just about everyone, and a good man despite his imperfections.
Things seem to be going right – no one guesses that Mike’s cheating the client and the system, Kyle is settling in nicely with Mike’s family, and then turns out to be a wrestling champ. Now he can even resuscitate Mike’s losing wrestling team while making a best friend. Cannavale’s character Terry, who’s miserable over his breakup with his wife (in which she seems to have gotten their house as well as their contractor) begs to join the team as another assistant coach, so now everybody’s a big happy family. Until …. you guessed it, the long-lost daughter shows up. Sullenly played by the charming Melanie Lynskey, Cindy is still a junkie, looking for what she can get, wheedling her father, trying to regain the affection of her estranged son, and hiring a lawyer (the estimable Margo Martindale) to help. This is where Mike could get into trouble, and if there was a moment of reality in this film, he would have. But he doesn’t. Everything’s settled discreetly, out of court, he has a big new extended family since Cindy willingly leaves her son with the Flahertys for the monthly guardianship fee, and Mike’s money problems are solved by his getting a second job. Which he should have done in the first place, right? But then we couldn’t have watched Tambor, Giamatti, and Cannavale being guys going nuts about high school wrestling matches. They do this very well, but as it’s March Madness time, aren’t we all seeing quite enough of guys going gaga over school sports?
Thomas McCarthy directed his own screenplay lovingly. It’s all about love, it’s all charming, the stumbles along the road dismaying. The primary stumbling block is, of course, the boy’s mother showing up – her very presence makes Kyle, a good kid, go crazy and do bad things. Just as a really bad situation made Mike Flaherty do bad things. We don’t know anything about what sent Leo’s daughter Cindy off the rails, but since she’s a junkie, she’s not likely to get much sympathy. Few actresses could have made us almost feel sorry for Cindy, but Lynskey pulls it off.
All of things that could go seriously wrong in this story do not because this just isn’t that kind of movie. It all ends up a step away from where you’d expect with confrontations, guilt, forgiveness, and pleasing resolutions, none of which involve the courts or the police or the Bar Association. “Win Win” is perhaps not a good film but seems to be due to its good acting. Structurally sound, well-paced, it’s the story’s absurdity and falseness pretending to be realism that bothers me. I doubt it’ll be out there on the big screen for long – but take heart, in a little while, it can be part of a pleasing evening at home.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.