Movie Review: Win Win

May 10, 2011


Have you ever decided to see a film after seeing its trailer, hoping against hope that the movie itself holds even better material than those clips released in the promo? Win Win actually gives you those golden moments that the promoters decided not to reveal in the preview. Seeing Win Win gave me the same delightful feeling as finishing off a pint of my favorite ice cream (butter pecan, by the way).

The storyline revolves around Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-time New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, a nice little family, a coaching gig with the high school’s losing wrestling squad, and a bone-headed best friend. He jogs to relieve anxiety—which leads to his panic attacks. He is normal, just like any guy trying to make the scales of life balance evenly.

One of Mike’s only clients, Leo Poplar is an elderly gentleman who is on the edge of dementia and whose only family, a daughter, is two decade’s worth of estranged. In an effort to keep Leo out of state-mandated care and to help make his own ends meet, Mike seizes the opportunity of a $1,500 per month stipend and Leo’s guardianship.

Now, according to the court transcript, Mike promises to honor Leo’s wish of staying in his own home. However, knowing that Leo’s estate is wealthy, Mike packs Leo up, puts him in a care facility down the road from his home, and pockets the checks. Not wanting to stress out his wife, Jackie, Mike tells her none of this. Jackie, in his defense, might be the pants-wearer of the two and a bit tightly wound.

As these things tend to do, Mike’s new responsibility eventually comes to light and Jackie is understandably peeved. Their older daughter Abby provides commentary as only a 4 year old can, witty and innocent. Then, literally out of nowhere, the scene-stealing Kyle enters the picture. That long-lost daughter of Leo’s? She has a son, a now-estranged son looking for his grandfather that some oaf put in a rest home.

Trying to do the right thing, the Flaherty family keeps Kyle in their home until he can sort things out with his rehab-entangled mom. The good news for Mike is that Kyle wrestles extraordinarily well. So Leo’s family, by extension, has solved his monetary issue and his awful wrestling team’s awfulness. The bad news for Mike is that Kyle serves as the magnifying glass which all other characters in this story get to look at themselves through. It makes for a really great movie.

Giamatti is pitch-perfect as a conflicted patriarch. He is better than he was in Sideways and, thankfully, much more likeable. Kyle, so mild and mellow, is played by newcomer Alex Shaffer. The kid is a natural! The supporting characters are spot-on. Mike’s pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale) may be a bigger child than Abby. Granted, his wife left him for the contractor who built their dream home, but his suffering provides a good portion of the comedic relief in Win Win.

The always quirky Jeffrey Tambor plays Mike’s co-worker and assistant wrestling coach Vigman. Amy Ryan’s portrayal of Jackie is perfectly mom-ish, showing both her incredible tenacity as a protective Jersey mother while sporting an homage to the perfect Jersey boy, Jon Bon Jovi, on her ankle.

No one is despicable here, no one perfect. Movies like Win Win represent a bigger picture where each of us does what we think is best at the time. Thankfully, our self-assessment of morals can be kept in check by those we interact with. As with a losing wrestling team, sometimes all you need is one confident and competent teammate to pull the rest of us up and through. See this movie—it really is win-win.

Win Win continues showing exclusively at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo.