Win Win

Comedy and drama generate a winning formula in Tom McCarthy’s latest project

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in 'Win Win.' Rating: PG-13, Grade: A-

Hollywood would like to convince us that stories fit into nice neat little genre boxes. There are comedies. There are dramas. They want to lead us like sheep into theaters, sell us overpriced concessions, and entertain us without challenging us to think because we might think twice about these simple choices and upset the easy win-win scenario (they make money, while we take what’s presented to us). Tom McCarthy, the director of The Station Agent and The Visitor, screws with the game plan in his latest film, Win Win, tweaking the situation by blurring genre lines, offering smartly observed humor and real-world economic and family dynamics beyond the cookie cutter situation comedy mold.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a struggling private practice attorney who also coaches a losing high school wrestling team, agrees to become the legal guardian of an elderly client (Burt Young) in order to manage the man’s monthly stipend. Mike needs the money to shore up his personal and professional stakes, but he does seem to care about his client’s interests. The plan, as he sees it, is short-term and although it is never explicitly stated, he will refocus his efforts once his immediate financial crisis is averted. Yet, he stumbles into a larger ethical quandry when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), his client’s grandson appears out of nowhere to stay with his grand,father while his mother (Melanie Lynskey) completes a stay in rehab. It turns out that Kyle is a state championship caliber wrestler. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take Kyle in and the spiral of misdirection and lies continues towards the inevitable climax.
But the moral and ethical dilemmas produce startling moments of honest laughs and darker emotions and, as the narrative unfolds, the film forces the audience to consider the choices we would make in the same compromised situations. No one in the film, not even Kyle’s mother Cindy, when she arrives fresh out of rehab with designs of her own, gets drawn in broad stereotypical strokes. The characters feel like real people with real problems; they could be our neighbors or maybe even our best friends, relaying their dramas over coffee, seeking advice. Rarely in feature films or on television in situation comedies do we truly get the sense that anything that happens could actually take place in our homes or in our communities.
And what about the marriage of comedy and drama? On screen, there is the either/or scenario or the perfectly scripted union that lacks authenticity despite its best efforts to mask the artifice. McCarthy, in The Station Agent, fell prey to the perfect artifice. That film was a bit too precious for its own good, whereas with The Visitor, he merely sprinkled humor into what was first and foremost a drama (albeit a compelling one). But here at last, by holding the mirror up before us, McCarthy creates the perfect Win Win; a marriage of genres that encourages us to think while thoroughly engaged in the business of entertaining us.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at film@daytoncitypaper.com.

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