While most sports-themed films focus on the game-winning shot at the buzzer or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, none are as emotionally rich as the ones that revel in the post-game celebration. Even then, winning isn’t everything if the narrative is brimming with spirited drama like in Rocky, A League of Their Own, or Friday Night Lights.
Sure, watching Rudy Ruettiger on the sidelines during his team’s final defensive stance in Rudy would have been extremely anticlimactic, and Daniel LaRusso probably would’ve found himself in a body bag if he hadn’t crane-kicked Johnny in the face at the end of The Karate Kid, but those things happen. The ball doesn’t always find the center of the rim. The coach leaves you sipping Gatorade on the bench. Nerves factor in. Someone always goes home disappointed.
It takes a film like Win Win to find a silver lining or thematic balance when a screenplay isn’t dictated by typical Hollywood standards. Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent), Win Win isn’t so much an inspirational Pride of the Yankees-type sports movie as it is an endearing family dramedy set delicately in the competitive world of high school wrestling.
Unlike Gary Cooper in that 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, Paul Giamatti in Win Win is far from announcing to anyone that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” As a small-town New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) worries about how he will support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. Moonlighting as the local high school wrestling coach doesn’t help ease any anxiety since his team of young grapplers is missing a few things, specifically skill.
But Mike’s problems seem to be solved two-fold when he agrees to take legal guardianship of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client suffering from early stages of dementia. Afterwards, Mike’s moral compass spins out of control; he pockets the monthly stipend and checks the old man into a retirement home. His sketchy behavior leads him into the path of Leo’s unusually mature, albeit slightly rebellious, teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer in a breakout role), who happens to know his way around a wrestling mat. Mike and Jackie are adamant about giving Kyle the stable, suburban upbringing he needs after they find out the only adult in his life is his drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey). McCarthy writes Kyle with sensitivity and depth and treats him like a real kid, as opposed to the oversized puppy dog Sandra Bullock boards in The Blind Side.
McCarthy could’ve replaced the wrestling scenes with scenes from any other sport and still produced the same heartwarming and darkly hilarious movie (credit actors Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coaches). The crux of this story comes from the complex relationships between all of McCarthy’s meaningful human characters. Giamatti’s role isn’t a stretch from the frustrated failures he’s accustomed to playing, but there is such a decent heart inside Mike that it allows audiences to overlook some of his early underhandedness and will his redemptive qualities to the forefront. Newcomer Shaffer holds his own in the daunting task of sharing the screen with juggernaut Oscar nominees; his non-actor charisma and natural athleticism (he’s really a state high school wrestling champion from Jersey) maintain his believability. Win Win may not be a flawless victory, but McCarthy is able to pin us down effortlessly nonetheless, proving there’s more to life than being carried off the field a hero.
Dir. and writ. Thomas McCarthy; feat. Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey (R)