"It's a win-win situation," we hear people say, often to try to convince us that something they're doing that's counter to your interests is just as much to your advantage as theirs.
That's what Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) tells himself when he signs up to be an old man's legal guardian. He's a struggling lawyer in rural New Jersey, a good guy who has taken on the thankless job of coaching the high school wrestling team. The old man (Burt Young) forgets things and needs to be in a group home. The state thinks so. Mike takes on the job of looking after the man's life and his affairs.
Mike gets paid for it, the old man gets to stay in his home: win-win. Except Mike doesn't let him stay in his house. He puts him in a retirement home. Sure, he lied to the judge and his wife (Amy Ryan). But they need the money, and at least he'll look in on the client, right? The judge doesn't need to know.
Win Win is about what happens after this unethical act by an essentially moral man. It's an entertaining and accessible film from director Thomas McCarthy.
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Giamatti is well cast as a man with burdens. The office building he shares with an accountant (Jeffrey Tambor) needs a new heating system. He has a young child and a toddler at home, and a shrinking client base. When he heads out jogging, his kid asks "Where's dad?" Running, the wife says. "From what?"
But every night, Mike has a few hours escape, trying to turn the Pioneers of New Providence High into winners. That's an uphill struggle, too.
Mike's two worlds collide in the person of Kyle, played by first-time actor Alex Shaffer with unaffected brilliance. He's the troubled teen grandson of Mike's client. If Mike doesn't want the judge to find out the old man has relatives, he has to take the boy in. Doing the right thing by Kyle might pay dividends. The kid's a wrestler. But this being a Tom McCarthy movie, things are more complicated than that.
Hangdog Giamatti has no difficulty in suggesting Mike's widening circle of dilemmas and the way they threaten to crush him. Ryan, of Gone Baby Gone, nicely complements his performance as a supportive no-nonsense spouse. No, they can't turn a teenager out into the street, even a stranger. But she's locking her door.
Bobby Cannavale juices up the wrestling half of the story, playing Mike's newly divorced pal who eggs him on as they both live vicariously through this new kid, the athlete neither of them were.
The story takes a lot of predictable turns, but the players — including the wrestling team — ground it all in a reality that never lets you think "formula." The wrestling scenes are positively giddy, the melodramatic moments compelling.
With Win Win, McCarthy has found his emotional sweet spot, a sweet and complex story to set it in and the perfect title for it.