Realistic acting gives this drama the ‘Win’

by David Dixon

Emmy winner Paul Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer (a nationally ranked wrestler) give exemplary performances in “Win Win”, Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Emmy winner Paul Giamatti and newcomer Alex Shaffer (a nationally ranked wrestler) give exemplary performances in “Win Win”, Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Thomas McCarthy is a multitalented man. He is an actor who has directed and written two highly regarded films, “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.” He also helped contribute to the story of “Up,” one of the most universally acclaimed movies of 2009. His third feature, “Win Win,” has turned out to be a successful comedy-drama that manages to be a subtle character study as well as an underdog triumph-of-the-odds tale.

New Jersey family man, Mike Flaherty (Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Paul Giamatti), is a lawyer and a high school wrestling coach who is suffering from financial troubles in modern America. After making a morally questionable decision in a court case, Mike becomes the guardian of Leo Poplar, an old man suffering from dementia (Academy Award nominee Burt Young). This court-appointed position pays $1,500 a month. On a random day, Mike meets Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a troublemaking lad whose mom has checked into rehab. Feeling sympathy for the boy, Mike and his caring wife, Jackie (Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan), decide to take Kyle under their wings. Soon after, they discover Kyle is a very strong wrestler. This inspires Mike to enroll Kyle at New Providence High School, to help lead their weak wrestling team to victory.

The actors in “Win Win” provide their roles with relatable characteristics. Giamatti gives one of his more subdued performances as Mike, a likeable guy whose personal world is much healthier than his professional one. He generally tries to do the right thing in his daily life, which makes him a compassionate protagonist.

Shaffer, a real-life nationally ranked wrestler, gives Kyle a quirky sense of humor, without ever turning him into an absurd joke. His scenes in the final third require him to be intense while being heartbreakingly sad, which Shaffer does with panache. In several ways he is Giamatti’s equal, which is evident in a scene where the two of them have to act without saying a word.

McCarthy’s script and direction are perfectly in sync. There is a realistic quality he gives to certain details about Mike’s day-to-day life; such as going to church or jogging to lower his work-related stress. McCarthy also playfully toys around with sport-genre motifs by incorporating motivational speeches, crowd-pleasing sequences of wrestlers in action, and even an upbeat montage set to Bon Jovi’s song “Have a Nice Day.”

There is one major flaw in the plot of “Win Win,” as dramatic irony is used to add unnecessary conflict for the main characters. Fortunately, the problem they have to face is resolved fairly quickly and the audience is left with a satisfying conclusion.

“Win Win” is another high-caliber McCarthy production with a charm of its own. The craft and gifted cast make for an overall gratifying package.

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