Mike Flaherty has more than his share of problems. He has a growing mountain of debt, fewer and fewer clients are coming to his law firm, and the high school wrestling team he coaches couldn’t pin a tail on a donkey. That he takes on an ethically questionable stewardship comes as no surprise. He has himself appointed guardian to his client, Leo (Burt Young), a kind man suffering from dementia whose only relative, a daughter, cannot be found. And while this ends up netting Mike $1,500 a month, he finds himself in over his head when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up on his doorstep, as does his mother (Melanie Lynskey) soon after.
As in The Station Agent and The Visitor, writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win (see interview next page) deals with characters who find themselves isolated, either through circumstance or choice. Flaherty doesn’t share his concerns with his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and feels as though he can contain things even after Kyle shows up. But what he doesn’t count on is the fact that he comes to care for and even idolize the young man, who proves to be a championship-caliber wrestler. It comes as no surprise that Kyle inspires the ailing wrestling team but what it prompts Mike to do is wholly unexpected.
In other hands, Win Win might have focused more on the inspirational aspects of its story. McCarthy is far more interested in the thorny issues that unexpectedly spring from good intentions. Mike’s decisions in the film’s third act are not immediate but done after much deliberation as what he eventually faces has long-term ramifications. But it also offers a degree of redemption he couldn’t have hoped for.
McCarthy casts his film well. Giamatti and Ryan generate a lived-in intimacy of long-time marrieds, while Lynskey is effectively desperate and manipulative. That acting veterans Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor are on hand as Mike’s friends and comic relief doesn’t hurt. However, newcomer Shaffer gives a moving, unaffected performance, effectively bringing to the fore this young man’s desire to excel at something when everything else in his life has gone wrong. In the end, Mike’s decisions prove beneficial to everyone, but not without a great deal of sacrifice, which makes them all the more meaningful.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.