Dir. Thomas McCarthy. U.S.A. 2011.

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In Thomas McCarthy's Win Win, Paul Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a struggling New Jersey attorney who is trying to keep his small practice going through tough economic times. Mike is a decent guy who also coaches a high-school wrestling team which is in about as rocky a shape as his finances. He lives in a typical suburban middle class home (where else?) with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two young daughters, not exactly an example of suffering humanity. Without talking things over with Jackie and letting her suggest a possible way out, Mike resorts to a morally dubious scheme without telling his wife. He takes on the guardianship of Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client of considerable means who may be facing Alzheimer's disease.

Despite the old man's urgent plea that he remain in his own house, Mike puts him in a private nursing home (lying to him that the court ordered it) and pockets the monthly guardianship fee of $1500. The plot gets even more complicated when Leo's 16-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives from Ohio to visit his grandfather. Telling Mike that his mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) is in drug rehab, Mike and Jackie agree to look after him in their basement for a short time, especially when they discover that Kyle is an excellent wrestler and wants to participate on the high school wrestling team. Of course, wouldn't you know it - when Kyle shows up, the team of losers begins to win every match, cue the cheering crowds and the high fives, no soundtrack from The Natural, however.  

Kyle' secret formula for winning is that he pretends his opponent is "pushing my head down, under water, and I'm going to drown unless I do whatever the xxx it takes to get up." To add more to the mix, McCarthy introduces us to Mike's assistant coaches, Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and Mike's old friend Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannaval), whose purpose is ostensibly to add comic relief. As it turns out, however, they are simply extraneous and do not provide either comedy or relief, only irritation. To say that Kyle is taciturn is an understatement. He has bleached blond hair, rarely smiles, and answers in monosyllables, yet he is a very sympathetic character thanks to the outstanding performance by first-time actor Alex Shaffer, a champion wrestler in real life.  

Given his home life, it is no coincidence that the boy is angry and confused but when he enrolls in high school and wrestles for the team, he develops friendships and warms up to Mike and his family, especially with his little girl Abby (Clare Foley). Of course, this is the movies, so the plot gets more contrived. Good old mom shows up, wanting to take both Kyle and Leo back to Ohio, even hiring a lawyer (Margo Martindale) to try and overturn the current court arrangement. Things get even more dicey when Kyle finds out about Mike's deception with his grandfather. Since this is a feel-good movie, Hollywood style, no one is allowed to feel bad and everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds. 

Naturally there are no consequences for Mike's behavior, which, in a final plot concoction, becomes even more unethical than before, but nobody seems too concerned. Mike is still a lovable character who worms his way into our hearts by apologizing and begging for a second chance. Who could refuse a straight-up guy whose only wrongdoing is defrauding the elderly? Win Win has some charming moments and can be quite entertaining. It had the potential, however, to be a movie that truly touched our lives. McCarthy, however, opts for the easy way out, covering up real issues with sitcom psychology that neatly ties all loose ends together. Capable actors unfortunately cannot compensate for a slick, formulaic script that sacrifices our human longing for real lives in real situations.


Howard Schumann

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