Cast and writing make "Win Win" just that

Win Win (2011)
106 min., rated R. 
Grade: A -

Only two movies down—"The Station Agent" and "The Visitor"—and actor turned writer-director Tom McCarthy already has his form of creating low-key, perceptive character-driven slices of life that are small in scale but satisfy in a big way. "Win Win" now fits into that category. 

Proving he can do anything, whether inhabiting the role of a crazy goon, a lonely soul, or a sadsack everyman, Paul Giamatti is great here. He's a true character actor and never seems to be acting but just feels lived-in as Mike. You'll never find him playing a type, not even here. 

In "Win Win," the film's protagonist is Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a stressed attorney running a tiny New Jersey law practice, where he mostly handles wills and trusts for older folks. Business isn't great, the plumbing needs repair. He jogs but it doesn't help because he just has panic attacks. Mike has two young girls with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. His solution is an unethical one but it works: he ends up signing on as the guardian of a client, Leo Poplar (still-alive Burt Young), who's slipping into dementia, so he'll pocket the $1,500 a month of the estate as a new source of income. The price? The grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a troubled bleach-blonde 16-year-old delinquet, shows up looking to live with Leo. But since Leo is living in a nursing home and his mother (Melanie Lynskey) is a recovering drug addict in a clinic, Kyle stays with Mike and his family and ends up training with the wrestling team and shows that with past experience he's the best on the team. Then when Kyle's mother shows up to pick up her son, things get really knotty. 

"Win Win" is like real life, complex, untidy, and unsentimental, dodging feel-good sports clichés, as the Big Match never becomes the real focal point. McCarthy employs organic humor and pathos out of the situations with balance, although his character arc for Mike could've been sharper. 

Giamatti makes Mike sympathetic, as he makes unethical choices that lead to inevitable consequences. Led by Giamatti, the rest of the cast is excellent. Shaffer, looking like a younger Eminem, impresses in his first film role; he himself was actually a successful wrestler in high school and won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship. Ryan is wonderfully warm and feisty as Jackie, a Jersey Girl whose maternal instincts kick in upon housing Kyle. She actually gets a well-written part. Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor lend good, amusing support, respectively, as his neurotic best friend and his assistant coach/accountant. 

"Win Win" is a genuine, funny, deeply felt win-win for McCarthy, Giamatti, and everyone involved.