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Review: Win Win

FIlm critic Peter Keough gives Win Win three stars.
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 25, 2011
3.0 3.0 Stars

Back in the '30s, with directors like Frank Capra and John Ford, Hollywood showed great sympathy for the forgotten men and women laid low by the economy. Not so anymore. Indie films like Winter's Bone and Blue Valentine might dramatize the plight of the rural poor and working stiffs, but most movie characters nowadays don't need to worry about mortgages or even working for a living. You won't find much screen time for people facing foreclosure or working extra jobs to put food on the table or the kids through college.

Thomas McCarthy has made a career of making movies about such forgotten people and other outsiders. They are funny, poignant, understated, generically unclassifiable films about hard-luck cases all indelibly portrayed by terrific actors. His debut, The Station Agent (2003), had a dwarf as a protagonist. His second film, The Visitor (2007), featured representatives of two unpopular demographics: illegal aliens and elitist academics. So it's no surprise that in his aptly named third feature, Win Win, he'd take an interest in the long-suffering, long-neglected middle class.

>> READ: "Interview: Thomas McCarthy's game plan for Win Win" by Peter Keough <<

That means average guys like Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). Mike labors as a lawyer in a small New Jersey town, but times are tough: he doesn't have many clients, and the furnace in the basement of his office building is making noise and he can't afford to replace it. He hides his anxiety, and his cigarettes, from his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), but the stress catches up with him. After suffering a panic attack while jogging with his pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale), he's desperate for a solution.

Then he does something not quite ethical. It happens so quickly, and is given so little emphasis, that at first you can't believe what you're seeing. This indiscretion helps pay the bills (though the unrepaired furnace keeps making noise), and for a while it looks as if he just might get away with it. Who'd suspect him of anything not strictly on the up and up? He's one of the most respected people in town, civic minded, and always ready to help out.

Like with the local high-school wrestling team. He and his accountant friend Stephen (a deadpan, very funny Jeffrey Tambor) are volunteer coaches for this hapless squad, which hasn't won a match all season. Then Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the grandson of one of Mike's clients and an intimidating teenager with bleached hair, shows up unbidden on the Flaherty doorstep. They agree to put him up, Jackie warily. "I'm not taking any chances with Eminem down there," she says as she locks the door to the basement, where Kyle has settled in. But Mike takes a shine to the kid when Kyle shows up at wrestling practice, demonstrates state-championship potential, and joins the team.

There's a lot going on here: financial turmoil, small-town friendships, family dynamics, moral dilemmas, a Rocky-style finale. Throw in an Alzheimer's case and a drug-addicted mother, and something is bound to be half-baked. But McCarthy almost pulls it all together. An actor himself, he's one of the best filmmakers working in movies today when it comes to casting and eliciting award-worthy performances. Cannavale, for one, would steal every scene he's in if he didn't mesh so perfectly with the other actors, especially Giamatti. Ryan's Jackie is nuanced, tough, tender, and heart-wrenching. The revelation, however, is Shaffer; simultaneously low-key and intense, he's a natural. They all imbue their roles with dignity, pathos, and wit. Although shafted by politicians and the economy, the middle class is now a winner on the screen.

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