Tom McCarthy might be more recognisable to audiences for his appearances as an actor in the Meet the Parents series and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, but his international success in the last few years has come from his directorial efforts. After winning a slew of writing awards, including an Independent Spirit Award and a BAFTA, for the screenplay to his debut directorial effort The Station Agent. Proving that he wasn’t just a one-trick pony, his highly acclaimed Oscar®-nominated sophomore effort The Visitor grabbed attention with its timely examination of immigration laws in the US, and earned McCarthy an Independent Spirit Award for Best Director.
Attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version) struggles to keep his wife (Amy Ryan, Green Zone) and business financially secure, moonlighting as a wrestling coach with fellow trainer Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor, The Hangover: Part II). When he stumbles across the possibility of earning an income from being the legal guardian of client Leo Poplar (Burt Young, New York, I Love You), he also become entangled in the life the troubled teenage grandson of Leo and star wrestler, Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer). For a time it looks as though everything is coming up Flaherty, until Kyle’s estranged mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey, Up in the Air) turns up.
Much of the work of Paul Giamatti has been spent in gaining empathy from an audience with an increasingly unlikable series of characters. Yet there is something about Giamatti’s permanent hangdog expression that encourages pathos in equal doses as the discomfort his rage-prone characters (Sideways, Barney’s Version) elicit. So it is refreshing to see the character-actor turned consummate downtrodden leading man give us a softer side with a character who, despite trying to perpetrate fraud on a senile old man and his family, is a genuinely nice person. Given director Tom McCarthy’s work immediately preceding this, it is difficult to reconcile this “nice” direction with the people involved in making it, but the fit proves to be a surprisingly comfortable one. There are no narrative surprises in this otherwise steadily-plotted comedy, but an excellent cast lifts this out of the ordinary. Newcomer Shaffer is particularly impressive, especially given that he was cast for his wrestling ability and not his acting chops.
Substituting wrestling for the basketball/baseball/football motif that would typically steer the troubled teenager on course, McCarthy’s familiarity with the subject gives a feeling of authenticity coupled with genuine emotional rigour. As Giamatti’s schemes begin to unravel, the inevitable denouement rears its tame head, and McCarthy doesn’t always steer clear of the emotional minefield and dramatically tidy conclusions that rite-of-passage films tend to leave us with. This is certainly a more intelligent and finely acted take on the well-worn genre, with none of the actors playing their characters as stereotypes, but there is still an element of familiarity to Win Win. Yet McCarthy maintains a consistent lightness to the film that will ultimately please audiences while maintaining the integrity and truth to his characters that he is known for. That’s a real ‘win-win’ situation.