We first glimpse Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) in Win Win huffing through a morning jog: exercise ordered by his doctor to combat chronic stress. Abby, Mike's daughter, asks where Daddy is.
"He's running," answers his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), a Jersey girl who long ago embraced the responsibilities of domestic life but is still prone to occasionally flash her Bon Jovi ankle tattoo.
"From what?" responds Abby, implying far more than she realizes.
As much acclaim as Tom McCarthy earns for his screenplays, his reputation as an actor's director is just as deserved. In The Station Agent, McCarthy's directorial debut, he helmed a terrific ensemble cast that included Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and Bobby Cannavale, and made a star out of Peter Dinklage. Richard Jenkins garnered an Oscar nomination in McCarthy's sophomore effort, The Visitor.
McCarthy, who is also a busy television actor familiar to fans of The Wire for his Season 5 turn as an ethics-challenged newspaper reporter, returns to his personal roots in Win Win, a winsome, often comic tale set (and partly filmed) in McCarthy's hometown of New Providence, N.J. It's McCarthy's most accessible yet subtly subversive film to date, one that manages to both celebrate the virtues of middle-class America while laying bare some unpleasant human frailties.
Mike is a beleaguered small-town attorney with a law practice and office furnace both on the verge of breaking down. Mike's me-time is spent moonlighting as a wrestling coach for New Providence High, although the team is suffering a losing streak as pronounced as their manager's personal travails.
When the state moves to institutionalize Leo Poplar (Burt Young), Mike's elderly, court-appointed client, Mike asks the court to assign him to be the dementia sufferer's guardian. Mike's motives are far from altruistic, because instead of fulfilling his promise to help his client live out his days at home, he checks Leo into a nearby assisted-living facility while depositing the monthly check for $1,500 he receives from the state for serving as Leo's guardian.
When Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo's troubled teenage grandson, arrives hoping to move in, Mike's consternation over this potentially disruptive event turns into glee when he discovers that the boy is a wrestling savant. Mike helps Kyle enroll in school so he can join the wrestling team. Since Kyle can't very well move in with Leo, he moves in with Mike and his family.
McCarthy's script is smart sans the smart-aleckiness of many Sundance-era indie comedies. He doesn't saddle Mike with the traditional movie lawyer stereotypes; instead, he's a regular working guy struggling to make ends meet who falters under life's pressures and expectations.
That's not to say Mike is a victim—indeed, Win Win suffers (almost fatally) from a bout of Rain Man syndrome. No matter the tidiness of McCarthy's ending and Mike's eventual road-to-Damascus moments, Mike is not a great guy. He begrudgingly makes time to even meet with Leo until learning of the windfall awaiting his guardian, and he treats Kyle as a nuisance needing only a bus ticket out of town before discovering the boy's proclivity for pinfalls.
Win Win survives these quibbles because of its cast and McCarthy's handling of them. Giamatti gives his most genuine, organic performance since Sideways—he doesn't play the role as much as he imbibes it. The director finds ways to exploit Ryan and Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Mike's business partner and assistant coach, without allowing their distinctive personalities to overwhelm their scenes. Shaffer, himself a former N.J. high school wrestling standout, so successfully balances Kyle's emotional tumult with charm and intellectual depth you'd scarcely believe the newcomer is making his feature film debut. And Bobby Cannavale, who plays another of Mike's buddies, is the best he's been since, well, The Station Agent.
Win Win has a setup straight out of a Coen bros movie (and one can only imagine the comeuppance Mike would endure in their sadistic hands). However, McCarthy treats both his characters and the audience with exceptional care and respect. The film is heartfelt but not sappy, sober but not cynical. To borrow the vernacular of the day, Win Win—and its talented writer-director—is winning.