Suburban woes in the 21st century

By Drew Hunt

As a story ripped straight from recent news headlines, the new film “Win Win” is likely to hit close to home for a lot of people. From director Tom McCarthy—a man with a myriad of credits, including director of 2008’s “The Visitor,” co-writer of the Pixar film “Up,” and recurring character on HBO’s “The Wire”—the film is a domestic exploration of middle class America that sees the director returning to his roots in a number of ways.

In “Win Win,” actor Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small-town attorney and high school wrestling coach living in suburban New Jersey who is struggling to support his family. After a series of questionable business dealings, he becomes the legal guardian of his elderly client Leo—played by Burt Young—figuring no harm will be done if he simply stows Leo away in a nursing home and pockets the monthly stipend check to help curb his financial woes.

Things go awry when Leo’s young grandson, Kyle—played by first-time actor Alex Shaffer—ends up on Mike’s doorstep. Kyle is on the run from an unfortunate domestic situation after his mother checks into rehab. Though his past is troubled, Kyle is a decent kid with a good heart—and he’s a hell-of-a wrestler. Fraught with guilt, Mike takes Kyle under his wing, enrolls him in the local high school and allows him to wrestle for his squad.

It’s the quintessential “win-win,” but like all good things in life, it only remains uncomplicated for so long.

Though some of the characters and situations in “Win Win” are nefarious and backhanded in nature, McCarthy grounds the narrative in subtle yet rousing social commentary. Looming over the story like a dark cloud is the current economic crisis, which has forced the already-modest lower-middle class to live even more modestly.

When Mike lies to the courts and cashes checks that aren’t rightfully his, it’s not an act of malevolence—it’s sheer desperation. The way McCarthy infuses simple realism into the situation speaks volumes about his keen understanding of the characters. It helps that he grew up in the very town the film is set: the autobiographic nuances of “Win Win” not only sustain authenticity, but aid McCarthy in an attempt to show us a world where there are no good guys or bad guys—just inherently moral individuals forced into making immoral decisions due to circumstances that are entirely beyond their control.

It’s a weighty subject matter, but McCarthy keeps the film airy with bright spots of humor and genuine emotion. For all intents and purposes, “Win Win” is an out and out sports film, fitted with your requisite training montage—two of them, in fact!—and the kind  “Hoosiers”-esque humanism that won Sandra Bullock her Oscar. And while stretches of the film are indeed formulaic, McCarthy isn’t the kind of filmmaker to settle for broad strokes.

While “Win Win” may be his most accessible and readily discernible effort, there’s no denying the intrigue of a good story told thoughtfully and with pathos: here, McCarthy excels. And he has help.

His principal cast—which also features strong supporting turns from Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle’s mom—keep the film’s occasional complacency from spiraling out of control. Giamatti, meanwhile, possesses the kind of naturalism perfect for his role. He is perhaps one of the most unglamorous leading men in Hollywood history, but his good-natured shlubbiness anchors this film and infuses it with believability.

“Win Win” is a film very much of our time and it unfolds in an inconspicuous manner. It avoids gaudy profundity but manages to attain a kind of quiet resonance. It all builds to a somber yet enriching final image—one that doesn’t put a bow on things but manages to impart a sense of hope. Considering the bleakness of both our country’s economic situation and current selection at the local Cineplex, McCarthy’s film is a welcome addition to the doldrums of a rainy spring