Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Win Win

Over the course of his three films to date—The Station Agent, The Visitor, and the new Win Win—actor-turned-writer/director Thomas McCarthy has focused closely on accidental families, formed among unhappy outsiders. His films are frequently touching and well-observed, and they’re packed with remarkable performances, but they’re most notable for the way they aren’t about characters so much as about the unsought but ultimately revitalizing relationships between them.

Win Win is less quirky than The Station Agent and less soulful (and political) than The Visitor, but it still does little to buck the trend. As it begins, the focus is firmly on Paul Giamatti as a New Jersey lawyer and high-school wrestling coach who’s struggling to make ends meet. Like so many Giamatti characters, he seems prickly but essentially good-hearted, so when he decides to profit from some chicanery involving a senior-citizen client (Burt Young), it seems like a major moral slide for him, no matter how much McCarthy gently undersells the drama. When Young’s gangly, passive teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer) arrives unannounced, Giamatti and his wife Amy Ryan reluctantly take him in, but Giamatti takes a selfish interest in him, both to cover up the Young business, and because Shaffer is an impressive wrestler. But as the film continues, the focus shifts to examine Shaffer—whose seemingly defeated, affectless blankness deliberately hides a great deal—and to take in other characters, including Bobby Cannavale as a buddy of Giamatti’s who becomes emotionally invested in his generally spastic, uncommitted wrestling team.

By backing up for a wide view of the changing, deepening ties between these characters, McCarthy avoids the trap of making Win Win an obvious, programmatic moral tale of a lawyer who barters his soul for money and fights to get it back, or a rejected kid who finds a better life, or any of the other artificially packaged uplift narratives potentially at work. Win Win is almost perversely low-key, and at its worst, it can feel unfocused and aimless. It’s a bit less of an actor’s showcase than McCarthy’s past work, with Shaffer standing out over his peers largely because he isn’t such a familiar presence. But at its best, Win Win refreshingly honest and unsentimental about how people fail each other, but can create significant connections out of even the smallest kindnesses. Its unfussy realism makes every funny moment and painful setback seem well-earned and believable.