by Hugh Fisher
You might not guess it from the posters, maybe not even from the trailers, but “Win Win” is a pretty complex movie. And it’s one with a familiar story of human weaknesses, retold here with just the right blend of laughter and drama.
Wrestling – the high school kind, not the Hulk Hogan variety – plays a key role, but don’t think it’s another sports movie. It’s about figuratively wrestling with temptations and insecurities. The actual sports element is just part of the framework, and it’s also presented very well.
Part-time wrestling coach and full-time attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is, like millions of Americans, struggling to get by. He’s trying to maintain his standard of living but there aren’t a lot of new cases coming his way.
When one of his court-appointed clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young, Paulie from the “Rocky” series) needs a guardian, Mike argues to have himself appointed to the role, promising to keep Leo in his home.
Minutes later, Leo is in a nursing home, and Mike is pocketing an extra $1,500 a month.
But when Leo’s grandson, aimless teenager Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up in town, Mike’s scheme starts to get complicated as he has to decide just how much to tell his family and how far he’s willing to go to make ends meet.
When Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), shows up fresh from rehab, further complicating everyone’s lives, the tension ramps up.
There’s plenty of silly buddy-comedy humor, most of it courtesy of Mike’s best bud Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and dry-witted Coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor). But two things make this movie stand out:
First, the choices made by writer/director Thomas McCarthy (“Up,” “The Visitor”), who wisely avoids the obvious and kitschy. The present-day world he creates, albeit full of nice cars and product-placed Nintendo Wiis, still has a vintage, lived-in feel.
And the characters are familiar without becoming caricatures.
McCarthy’s story keeps us guessing. This is a movie where nothing is certain until the credits roll.
Viewers with sharp ears will recognize an interesting detail about a third of the way in.
When Kyle gets to see his grandfather, Leo’s TV is blaring as usual. We hear the voice of William Christopher as Father Mulcahy, the jocular Army chaplain from “M*A*S*H.”
The filmmakers couldn’t have picked a more interesting clip to play. This movie starts off with all the makings of a goofy comedy, but just like an episode of “M*A*S*H,” things get very serious about halfway through.
Kyle’s decisions might end any hopes he has of a wrestling career and Mike has to face the fact that he’s hurt the very people he was trying to defend.
Of course you’ll laugh – a lot. It’s a comedy. But you’re also probably going to walk out feeling like you learned something. Maybe even looking at yourself more closely in the mirror when you get home, as Mike does.
That’s what I’d call a win-win situation.
Grade: 3/4 Stars