In Raging Bull, Joe Pesci gives a roundabout description of a “win-win” situation that goes something like “If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win. You can’t lose.” Something like this definitely applies to anyone who takes a chance on Thomas McCarthy’s terrific off-beat comedy, Win Win. You’ll be out ten bucks after paying to see it, but trust me—you’ll still come out feeling like you’re ahead.
The story concerns a New Jersey storefront lawyer named Mike (Paul Giamatti). Mike gets bittersweet satisfaction out of his second career coaching the losingest high school wrestling team in the state, but money is tight. He has family expenses to share with wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and appearances to keep up at his business—nobody wants to hire a lawyer who can’t afford to maintain a working toilet. To ease his cash-flow situation, he agrees to become paid legal guardian to his client Leo (Burt Young), who is suffering from nascent dementia. After all, the guy has no close family and would otherwise become a ward of the state, destined for an institution. What’s the harm if Mike puts him in a nicer rest home and pockets the fee himself?
A surprise comes when Leo’s nephew Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up after running away from his druggie Mom (Melanie Lynskey, too long absent since her 1994 role opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures). The chain-smoking, bleach-blond, pimply-faced Kyle looks like a dirt-bag, but turns out to be the finest natural wrestling talent Mike has ever seen. Mom’s in rehab and the kid’s good with his half-crazy Uncle too, so what’s the harm in enrolling him at the local high school—and putting him on his wrestling squad too? Sounds like a “win-win” all around, even if Mike has to bend the truth a bit to make it happen.
Naturally, Mike has to pay for all this good fortune, and pay he does in the smart script by director McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) and Joe Tiboni. Suffice it to say that his designs fail to count on the human connections that trail, like trip-wires, behind them. Though Mike is not a king or captain of industry, Win Win is one of the most poignantly fashioned tales of punished presumption in recent times. It also happens to be very funny.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast. Paul Giamatti continues his winning streak of picking roles that complement his schleppy (or is that “schlumpy”?) everyman appeal. Amy Ryan, last seen flirting with Gabriel Byrne in the final season of HBO’s In Treatment, shows herself equally convincing in a less elevated mode (she declares she wants to “punch out” Kyle’s missing mom).
But best of all is newcomer Alex Shaffer. Before getting this role, he really was a star wrestler, until a back injury put him on the sidelines. But there’s much more to his superbly modulated performance than a few good moves on the mat—he’s got the presence of someone who’s already been acting for years. The only comparison to him I can come up with is another bottle-blond who lit up a high school movie almost thirty years ago. True, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a very different sort of comedy, but the comparison with a young Sean Penn is no exaggeration. Keep an eye out for this kid—you’ll be seeing him again.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro