The dead tree in his front yard is a metaphor for how much he can't afford to fix.
Win Win was written and directed by Tom McCarthy who was responsible for both The Visitor and The Station Agent, two exceptional independent films. McCarthy deals in subtleties, and this time he tapped Paul Giamatti, another master of such things, for the leading role. Giamatti repeatedly draws superlatives from audiences and critics for making the ordinary come alive. He is the rare actor who can invest an average guy with outsized and imperfect humanity. We never see the mechanics of a Giamatti performance until quite suddenly we realize how much we care about his character. His roles are the sum of small gestures, expressions, frustrations, and pleasures. He always surprises us.
In Win Win he is Mike Flaherty, a small town New Jersey lawyer specializing in geriatric clients. Because Mike is an honorable guy and because the clients are predictably needy but not affluent, Mike's personal financial picture is dim. When the office toilet stops up, Mike reaches for the plunger, not the plumber. The dead tree in the front yard is a metaphor for how much he can't afford to fix.
What to do? Well, one can apply to the court to become the guardian for an aging client. That would be Leo (Burt Young). In an uncharacteristic move, Mike accepts the annual $1500 and stashes the old man in a nursing home. When Leo's teenage monosyllabic grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer)) arrives, unannounced, to live with his grandfather after leaving his drug addicted mom, the movie shifts into high gear. It's easy to tell you that Kyle becomes the central focus, not quite so easy to describe how his troubles draw the best from the people circling around him.
Kyle, you see, is a talented high school wrestler, a gift he bestows on Mike and his colleague Stephen (the wonderfully expressionless Jeffrey Tambor) who are volunteer coaches for the abysmal local high school wrestling team. When Mike's friend, the irrepressibly self-aware Terry (Bobby Cannavale) senses the glory that might accompany Kyle, he jumps on board as another coach. Got the picture? Mike and his wife Jackie, grandfather, grandson, and coaching team become family - usually all under the Flaherty's roof. It may not be an oasis of utopian calm, but at last Kyle has a family.
So far, almost ordinary. But quietly, along the way, Mike's long suffering and feisty wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) has been able to transcend the mundane problems of daily life to open her heart to Kyle's predicament. Amy Ryan's move from anger to acceptance to protective tiger, is quite a thing to see. She and Paul Giamatti endow Jackie and Mike with such credible authenticity and integrity that I can only believe these qualities are inherent in their real life selves. Faced with a multitude of choices, they struggle mightily to make the right ones. A final salute to Tom McCarthy who uses small films to move us with big ideas.
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