Win Win (2011)
Thomas McCarthy returns with another strong, genuine and deeply invigorating film. As with his debut The Station Agent and his brilliant The Visitor from 2008, McCarthy takes a look at average America, with its social and structural challenges, but he does so from the individual's perspective, focusing on what we all can do for ourselves and others, but also on how we sometimes do things we may regret. He is interested in our human flaws, and he is out to reveal them in all of us, but he is also intrinsically optimistic, with a strong belief in our basic goodness - which he conveys perhaps more beautifully and truthfully than any current working director.
Win Win is about Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), a family man and small-time lawyer in financial trouble who is court-appointed to represented an elderly man suffering from dementia. The state wants to move the man into a senior care facility, at which point Mike convinces the judge to appoint him as the man's legal guardian, before then placing him in the facility himself and collecting the $1,500 monthly guardian stipend which he keeps for himself. Soon, however, the elderly man's teenage grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), appears on his grandfather's now abandoned doorstep, claiming to have ran away from his drug-addicted mother. Mike has little other choice than to let the kid stay with his family while they try to locate his mother. In the meantime, Kyle accompanies Mike around, first to work and then to wrestling practice, where Mike is coaching. The kid asks if he can join in, and soon Mike realizes he has discovered the talent he's always been looking for.
The plot may seem like a hybrid of 2007's Welcome to the Rileys and the wrestling-edition of The Karate Kid. And although that may not be inaccurate - or negative for that matter, it's not the dramaturgy which is at the forefront of Thomas McCarthy's work; it's the people populating it. Win Win has a small-scale familiar American dream tale involved, and it's also typically structured - both as a sports film and as an independent family drama. But that all works flawlessly when it's handled and presented as carefully and sincerely as McCarthy does here. He writes wonderful characters too; they're distinctive and even a little eccentric without feeling contrived. And when he's able to get Paul Giamatti into the kind of form as he does here, he's got a sure winner on his hands. Giamatti has, in my opinion, established himself as the very best working American character actor, and he is about to become an even better leading man. I cannot think of one single actor who makes you forget you're watching a performance as well as Giamatti does. His work here is Oscar worthy.
There are also great performances given by Alex Shaffer, as the kid, and Amy Ryan, as Giamatti's wife. And McCarthy also tries to add some comic relief in the form of Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as Giamatti's buddies and assistant coaches. This is, however, the one thing in the film that doesn't work particularly well, but luckily it is reasonably toned down, much like McCarthy's rendition of middleclass suburbia in general. He directs with a confidence that is unusual in indie films like this; he never feels the need to up the ante in order to front his characters or get his seemingly unremarkable slice-of-life across. McCarthy lets his film speak for himself, and that is why even less ordinary events, such as overstepping strict moral boundaries, discovering an incredible wrestling talent, or deciding to basically adopt a teenager feels perfectly natural.