Getting to No
Why ‘Win Win’ Fails.
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer
Kimberly Wright / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Like all warmly received slice-of-life movies made with small budgets, Win Win is being compared to Little Miss Sunshine and Juno even though it bares little resemblance to either—save, perhaps, for the fact that its producers would dearly love it to make enormous sums of money and be nominated for many Oscars.
What it shares with them is a grainy photographic style and no-frills art direction intended to suggest that what we are seeing is a realistic depiction of the quotidian details of American life among the just-getting-by. But where the sociological ambition and satirical sharpness of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno caught you unawares and thereby magnified their effectiveness, Win Win turns out to be extraordinarily slight and unbelievable.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a New Jersey lawyer in his forties with a modest practice who is sinking deeper into the financial mire. Mike is nothing special, though he seems like a decent if pretty schlubby guy. He lives in an ordinary house, has a pleasant wife and a couple of little kids with whom he attends church every Sunday, and has a part-time job as a high-school wrestling coach.
A dead tree threatens to topple onto his house, but Mike can’t afford to pay someone to cut it down. The boiler in the little building housing his office is about to explode, but his partner won’t put up the money to fix it because “my stepson wants the Lasik.” Mike is having anxiety attacks during his morning jogs—and he only goes jogging because a doctor suggested it would help with the stress. The only person who knows about the depth of his woes is his high-school buddy Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale). Mike won’t share them with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan).
As Win Win begins, a judge has named Mike the state-appointed counsel to a well-to-do Alzheimer’s sufferer named Leo Poplar (Burt Young). Poplar’s only relative, a daughter he hasn’t seen in decades, is nowhere to be found. Mike tells the judge he will serve as Poplar’s legal guardian so the old man can remain in his own house. He is only doing so because he knows the guardianship comes with a $1,500 monthly stipend and he desperately needs whatever money he can lay his hands on. He violates his promise to the judge and stashes Poplar in the local old-age home anyway (at Poplar’s expense).
This suggests Win Win is going to be something special and vivid—a movie about the anxieties of the suffering middle class during the American financial downturn. And then, all of a sudden, writer-director Tom McCarthy turns Win Win into an indie version of The Blind Side. A skinny teenage boy named Kyle turns up. He is Poplar’s grandson, and he’s come to live with the grandfather he’s never met. Mike and his wife Jackie take Kyle in as they wait for his absent mother to show up, and it turns out he’s a dazzlingly talented wrestler. Of course it turns out Kyle has been abused, but he’s a good kid at heart. He changes everyone’s life for the better.
And then Kyle’s mother shows up and it’s time for a melodramatic third act, complete with a courtroom confrontation and a climactic wrestling match and Poplar disappearing from the nursing home and Kyle running away and everybody getting a chance to yell at Mike.
Win Win’s turn toward uplifting sports drama feels grafted onto the more interesting material about Mike’s troubles. And Kyle is an unrealized character whose positive effect on Mike and Jackie and his teammates is simply asserted, not shown. McCarthy cast an amateur in the part, and that was a mistake, because the role requires more intensity and emotion than the kid we see can summon up.
That is of a piece with the movie as a whole. McCarthy displays no talent whatever for the conventional storytelling tropes to which he defaults as Win Win comes to its close. He is much better when it comes to tiny details—a child spilling apple juice on a kitchen table, the barely populated stands at a wrestling tournament, the perpetually hangdog expression of Mike’s bummer of an assistant coach (the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor). His talents mirror those of Paul Giamatti, who has become the American cinema’s great Everyman.
Giamatti never strikes a false note. Would that one could say the same of Win Win.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
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