Films/Theater Reviews — 10 March 2011
A Sneak Preview: Review of Win Win

This review contains no spoilers

Win Win is a relatively little known independent film which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival from Fox Searchlight Pictures, to both critical and viewer acclaim. Straddling the line of drama but leaning more toward comedy, the story follows the always humbled Paul Giamatti, as fledgling attorney Mike Flaherty, whose New Jersey legal practice is slowly diminishing. As one of his clients named Leo (played capably by Burt Young of Rocky fame) is deemed unable to care for himself by the state, and being unable to locate any member of the man’s family, Flaherty decides to become his legal guardian to appropriately care for his client. However, at the same time, Flaherty knowingly compromises his practice and his family by collecting the $1,500 monthly commission to do so.

While Flaherty’s practice is in the dumps, he moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, and his team is as ill-equipped for success as his law practice is, losing every wrestling match that season. But when he heads back to Leo’s home and finds the man’s grandson sitting on the steps, Flaherty and wife Jackie (played incredibly realistically by Amy Ryan) decide there’s nowhere for him to go and they decide to take the young man home. It turns out that the reserved sixteen year old named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) jumped on a bus from Ohio to get away from his addict mother without ever meeting his grandfather. But alas, once Flaherty finds out that Kyle was an accomplished amateur wrestler, he quickly enrolls him in the local high school and puts him on the team. But just when it seems the entire season and Mike’s life is beginning to turn around, the boy’s mother emerges, and everything that Flaherty had been controlling is suddenly at risk.

Even as we watch Giamatti’s character make immoral choices, his everyman demeanor and “do anything for his family’s survival” flaws, draw us closer to him, making us root hard for his survival, even when we know what he’s doing is wrong. He’s a middle class family man in northern New Jersey who wants nothing more from life other than what we all want- some happiness and some comfort. But Giamatti is at his absolute best as the bumbling loser, who simply can’t manage to figure it all out, and whether it’s his bulbous frame, his receding hair, or his flexibility as an often underrated leading man, the audience always manages to defend even his most corrupt choices, because we want to believe his underlying intentions.

The supporting cast here is also phenomenal. Ryan’s middle aged New Jersey housewife persona is both compassionate and seemingly authentic to a fault. Flaherty’s business partner and assistant coach, Stephen Vigman, is played flawlessly by Jeffrey Tambor, whose comic timing and clumsy naiveté often make him a fitting foible as Giamatti’s sidekick. However, most often it is actor Bobby Cannavale who makes the most of his screen time as Giamatti’s hilarious wise-cracking buddy Terry Delfino, a recent divorcee trying to move on from his failed relationship and leans on Flaherty’s life and family to do so. And finally Shaffer, opens up more and more as the movie progresses, each time forcing the audience to wait with baited breath for what you expect to be a surefire explosion. While not necessarily the most charismatic, the role didn’t need him to be and the portrayal was both believable and empathetic.

Win Win is a movie that explores the circumstances of moral compromise, from one kid’s rugged upbringing to the opposite- a seemingly stable nuclear family. The film combines laugh out loud elements, very real socio-economic problems, and a real, relatable cast that collaborates to shine in an enlightening, if not completely entertaining 106 minutes. Win Win will be officially released on March 18th and it certainly gets our seal of approval. See this one in theatres.

- Jane Van Arsdale

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