This Week’s Popcorn – “Win Win”

Victory for the common man

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Following a thoroughly enjoyable viewing of director Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win,” I’ve decided that after the health of my family, world peace and a Ferrari, I’ll ask the genie to please let Paul Giamatti perennially regale us with his portrayals of middle class heroes. His struggling lawyer by day, high school wrestling coach by night, is an inspiration.

Uplifting without the usual Hollywood punctuation to cue us when to exult and when to anguish, this modest production, also written by McCarthy, sings a paean to humanity. A fine cast of familiar types welcomes us in to the fold. And while it makes no promises, it is soon apparent that, if nothing else, there will be fierce honesty.

First of all, whereas films rarely encumber audiences with the day-to-day tribulations that comprise our lives, here, it is practically the centerpiece. Meet New Providence, New Jersey’s Mike Flaherty, an attorney whose real talent is giving folks a hand. Some might call him a schnook for it. But it’s who he is, and as usual the cash flow isn’t very good.

In the evenings, to make pin money and perhaps exercise a passion unfulfilled by the daily grind, the human comedy only continues. His wrestlers are a mediocre bunch of slackers who hardly listen to exhortations he himself has come to believe less and less. Giamatti fills Mike’s face with something you might remember seeing in your parents.

In other words, he is ripe for a lottery win or a grand epiphany. But, as this screenplay is determinedly realistic, while waiting for his boat to come in Mike is going to have to settle for a more bromidic consolation. Like forgetting his woes by helping someone with bigger troubles; bingo, he shows up, not on his, but on a client’s doorstep.

Kyle, superbly portrayed by newcomer Alex Shaffer, is a runaway from Ohio. The white-haired teen is looking for his grandfather, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an old gent struck by early stage Alzheimer’s who Mike has been representing. But there’s more to it than that. Factor the words desperation and ethical conundrum into the plot equation.

The interesting news is Kyle, who wants absolutely nothing to do with his dope-addicted mom (Melanie Lynskey), is a heck of a wrestler. However, a whole bunch of buts and ifs stands in the way of this disclosure proving beneficial to anyone. While that’s being decided, the Flahertys offer temporary aid to the troubled teen.

You’ll get scarcely more details here. But rest assured that while the scenario is not unfamiliar, McCarthy smartly avoids the usual clichés. Rather, he allows his character-driven script to wander this way and that, and relate a touching tale in the process. Mike’s motley pals and colleagues interact to supply both suspense and comedy.

Heading the list of supporting performances, Bobby Cannavale adds a whimsically telling perspective as Terry Delfino, Mike’s best friend since high school. Well-heeled, albeit compromised by a crushing divorce, he is nonetheless the perpetual youngster. As charged up by Kyle’s wrestling prowess as Mike is, he wants to share in the kid’s glory.

On the home front, her motherly instincts appalled by the idea of a young boy separated from his natural mom, Amy Ryan is sweetly warmhearted as Mike’s wife, Jackie. The thing is, she already has two of her own kids to raise. But OK, it’s all right if he sleeps in the basement … only until his mother gets out of rehab and comes to fetch him.

Illustrating by his hangdog example another angle of the emotional landscape is Jeffrey Tambor as Stephen Vigman, the deadpan CPA who co-habits the house where counselor Flaherty makes his office. Oh, he’s also the coach’s assistant by night. But more important is what this gaggle of chums, relatives and hangers-on represent.

Though the largest common denominator in the world, rarely is it highlighted in American films the way it is in “Win Win.” I speak of the struggle to make a living. Occupation is generally an identifier of class, but infrequently connected with the shekels needed to order pizza for the brood (working two jobs, there’s no time to cook).

Here, a stiff upper lift attempts to trump the furrows in Giamatti’s middle-aged forehead – a ploy conjured to stave off anxiety in those who depend on him. Only his canniness, strength and determination separate them from the mastodons, saber-toothed tigers and natural disasters that threaten just outside the cave.

Add to these observations a savvy thesis about the moral quandary Mike gets himself into whilst grappling for survival, and you have an artistic representation of what it takes to rise above the quiet desperation that typifies most men’s lives. Successfully celebrating how we regularly fight the good fight, “Win Win” scores a motion picture triumph.

“Win Win,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Thomas McCarthy and stars Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer and Bobby Cannavale. Running time: 106 minutes