Thomas McCarthy's previous films, "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor," were about sad, dispirited people finding love, hope and human connection where they least expected it. "Win Win," McCarthy's latest film, is another funny, touching film in the same vein, and one that promises to bring McCarthy a larger audience.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small-town New Jersey lawyer and high-school wrestling coach with a loving wife (Amy Ryan), two adorable small daughters, and a rapidly failing law practice. Desperate to make ends meet, he finagles his way into becoming the court-appointed guardian of one of his clients--Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an old man in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's--and pockets the $1,500-per-month guardian fee. However, Mike didn't count on the sudden appearance of Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), the teenage son of Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) Leo's long-estranged junkie daughter. A sullen, bleach-blond kid, Kyle is a troublesome guest in the Flaherty household until the day Mike brings Kyle along to wrestling practice. Kyle turns out to be a wrestling whiz, and Mike suddenly has dreams of taking his team to the state championship. But soon Cindy shows up, sending Kyle into violent rebellion and threatening Mike's sweet deal with the court.
Never quite taking the audience where it expects to go, "Win Win" is a quirky and beguiling film about the growing bond between Mike and Kyle, how that bond is threatened, and what Mike is willing to do to preserve it. The cast could not be bettered. Giamatti, Ryan, Young and Lynskey are all superb, as are Jeffrey Tambor as Mike's fussbudget assistant coach and Bobby Cannavale as Mike's newly divorced buddy. Alex Shaffer, a high-school wrestling champion who was cast for his wrestling prowess, gives a touching and natural performance as Kyle; I hope to see him in more movies. If you're expecting a "Rocky"-style triumph at the end, think again; the biggest victory, McCarthy shows us, is simply being the best person you can be.