There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Paul Giamatti is the filet mignon of actors and those who don’t know shit about talent. Joking, but I have been a fervent ‘Matti fan since he donned the blue track suit of Veal Chop in the criminally overlooked Safe Men. Is he one-note? Not at all. Don’t be influenced by the melancholy nature of the characters he portrays. This is, after all, the man who starred in Big Fat Liar and Thunderpants. Anyone whose career can survive back-to-back disasters of that magnitude can do anything he wants.
Win Win stretches Giamatti’s face into that rarest of contortions — the smile. Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a small-time lawyer in a smaller New Jersey suburb. The practice is struggling and Mike is finding it difficult to pay the bills. With two kids and his wife — a stay-at-home mom — to provide for, a tangled and stressful knot has begun to form in his psyche. But through it all, Mike remains content and smiling. More than anything, he just wants it all to stay the same.
The story begins to take shape when Leo, an elderly grump, played by the beloved Burt Young, falls into Mike’s lap. Leo is wealthy but going senile. He has no one to take care of him and the state wants him in a home. The dangling carrot is the $1,500 a month per diem allotted Leo’s guardian. Mike smells an opportunity for his first ‘Win Win:’ take care of Leo and grab some extra cash for his pocket.
Along with Leo comes the next surprise: Leo’s grandkid Kyle, a 16-year-old, cigarette smoking, former champion wrestler who looks like someone used his head to mop up a peroxide spill. Kyle’s looking for his grandpop. Mike isn’t sure what to do, and it turns out the kid’s mom is a drug addict and he has nowhere to go until she exits rehab.
Mike, in addition to small-fry lawyer, is also the High School wrestling coach. His team is full of miscreants and nerds who’d rather be slaying dragons than getting pinned. Kyle, it just so happens, is the best wrestler in his state. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if he stuck around Mike’s house for the season. ‘Win Win,’ right? Mike has a good heart, but he’s so blinded by his need to do right the thing for his family that he misses the fact that he might be stepping across the line.
Kyle’s a good kid; a street smart kid who has grown up too fast and as a result, treats adults like equals. But inside, he’s still a kid who wants a normal life. Mike and his wife (Amy Ryan) try to give him that. But it’s never that simple.
Win Win may sound like a drama, but its really more of a comedy. The packed theater was alive with laughter more often than not. Director/Co-Writer Thomas McCarthy does a very good job of making sure we don’t pity Kyle, but that we are intrinsically invested in his future. It’s impossible to not root for the kid. Anyone handed such a lousy hand in life deserves better.
The acting, beyond Paul Giamatti, is fantastic. Amy Ryan once again proves she has the chops and diversity to succeed in any role, whether it’s on The Office or the polar opposite, as she did in Gone Baby Gone. If Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, never acts again, he was born for this part. McCarthy says they actually scoured high schools across the country in search of a real wrestler to play the part, and that Alex is pretty much the kid we see on screen.
This movie is funny, poignant, well-scripted and even though it leans toward melodrama, it sincerely tugs at the strings attached to your heart. You’ll want it to end well, and despite the missteps of our protagonist, you never really hold it against him for too long. He’s just doing the best that he can, the only way he knows how. And there isn’t a better actor out there to bring this character the depth it needs than my man Veal Chop.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more