Paul Giamatti is the embodiment of weary resignation so there's something glibly amusing about his casting as a wrestling coach in Win Win. It's just that sort of film from indie writer-director Tom McCarthy who has carved out a niche in portraits of unlikely friendship. His previous films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, were finely tuned so that the quirks of the characters didn't overwhelm. Conversely, this tale of a coach and a troubled teen seems more grounded, but actually it's less authentic because of the formulaic set-up. It's Giamatti's centred portrayal that keeps it true.
By day, Mike is a suburban lawyer struggling to make ends meet, but he prides himself on his commitment to helping people. Coaching a hopeless high school wrestling team is one of his voluntary obligations, a show of good will that means when he's faced with the option of an easy meal ticket he feels entitled to exploit it. The cash cow in question is Leo, an elderly client with dementia (Burt Young) about to be made homeless. Outraged, Mike declares in court that he'll act as Leo's primary carer (for a monthly grant) just before dumping the old man in a care home.
Not only is this illegal, it's just plain wrong. The trick is that, by this point, Mike has won your affection. He adores his wife (Amy Ryan) and kids, and he is adored by them. He is a pillar of the household as well as the community and tortures himself with the responsibilities this brings. Like most of Giamatti's best characters, he is an old-fashioned trier. You want him to win, enough that a little financial fraud doesn't make waves. Instead, there's an undercurrent of tension that gradually builds when Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up. Feeling guilty because he has nowhere to stay, Mike takes him in. It's just a stroke of luck that he's a champion wrestler.
The situation is a little too convenient, but it does add another layer of complexity for Mike who must decide how far he will go in deceiving everyone to justify what he sees as a 'win win' situation. Inevitably, Kyle is one of those mixed-up kids who is in desperate need of an honest, guiding hand. And yet, his star status on the wrestling team may be a vital building block for his self-esteem - knowing the truth might literally floor him. It's a familiar chain of events that resolves these issues, but where McCarthy veers from the mainstream is in his focus on the small lightbulb moments over the slow-motion slam-dunks that usually mark the reversal in fortunes.
For the most part, the comedy is just as skilfully underplayed, drawing attention to Mike's growing discomfort. But at other times McCarthy goes broad - sometimes with physical comedy - and tips the balance. Pitting a scrawny kid against a heavyweight wrestler is one such easy laugh, but Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) gets shorter shrift as Mike's bumbling sidekick, put on the coaching team to distract him from stalking his ex-wife. As assistant coach, Jeffrey Tambor's hangdog routine is cancelled out by Giamatti and his droopier-than-thou countenance. But it's a face that belies great humanity. Giamatti gets you so wrapped up in his cause that when he finally considers coming clean it feels like a betrayal. It's a crafty turn, like a gentle headlock.
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