This review was originally published on January 23, 2011, from the Sundance Film Festival. It is being reposted for its home video release.
Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win” is very, very Fox Searchlight, if you know what that means (and it’s not necessarily a bad thing). At times I felt like I was watching the characters from “Little Miss Sunshine” had they all stayed home instead of taking the cross-country trip to the toddlers & tiaras show. In spite of some way too coincidental elements to the story, I like “Win Win” a lot more than I probably would have in any other director’s hands.
McCarthy, the actor-turned-filmmaker who gave us the wonderful Peter Dinklage showcase “The Station Agent” and the wonderful Richard Jenkins showcase “The Visitor,” here gives us a wonderful Paul Giamatti showcase (he doesn’t need one as much). That said, though, this is more celebratory as an ensemble film, featuring one of the best casts I’ve seen in some time, and Giamatti may in fact be the least remarkable part of it. He’s great, as usual, but that’s it, he’s simply his usual.
Giamatti plays a New Jersey lawyer whose practice is struggling, and on the side he co-coaches (with a relatively underutilized Jeffrey Tambor) a high school wrestling team, also a miserable failure. When an elderly client (Burt Young) who’s estranged from his family faces being turned over to the care of the state, Giamatti steps in primarily to exploitatively earn some extra money as the old man’s guardian. Suddenly, complicated yet fortuitous happenstance occurs when Young’s runaway, troubled teen grandson shows up, and of course he’s an exceptional wrestler.
The film must be seen for the supporting cast, including the hilarious Bobby Canavale who is never better than in a McCarthy movie, and McCarthy is never better without Cannavale playing the part of the fool/comic chorus. He might be playing the same exact character he plays in “The Station Agent,” but I will continue to see the filmmaker’s work if he continues to feature Cannavale in such capacity (now I’m certain of what “The Visitor” is missing).
Amy Ryan meanwhile remains one of the most watchable actresses right now, seemingly taking a back seat as Giamatti’s wife, but she’s actually tremendous at what she’s required to do. Another critic stated after the screening that she doesn’t get to do enough, that she just reacts to things. But man is she brilliant at reacting to things. And she’s really pretty funny, just on a quieter, less laugh-out-loud level than the scene-stealing Cannavale.
Everyone should at least agree that Ryan and Giamatti are perfectly matched together and their chemistry makes them the best parental pair since Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci in “Easy A.” I also love the fact that in this she’s the very opposite of her character in “Gone Baby Gone,” and in fact gets to respond to a counterpart “druggie” mother as if she’s reacting to her alter-ego while reflexively addressing just how broad a character actress she is.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that, as the other mother, Melanie Lynskey is not as worn down and messed up as Ryan is in “Gone” -- not that I should expect her to be as incredible as Ryan is in that Oscar-nominated performance, but it’s also hard not to make the comparison. And either way, the contrast could have been much, much more pronounced. Not to mention that regardless Lynskey should have been made to look like a woman who’d had a kid at 17 and has since then had problems with addiction and other presumable hardships. Instead, she kind of looks better in “Win Win” than she’s ever looked before.
Ultimately the movie works more for the acting (and McCarthy’s direction of the actors) than the script, though the writing is not as sappy or feel-good or happy ending-friendly as it first seems. I was pleasantly surprised with a number of choices McCarthy makes in the unfolding of the story, particularly in the end. I was, however also disappointed with the lack of a few payoffs that should have been in there.
"Win Win" is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: "The Station Agent"; "Little Miss Sunshine"; TV's "Roseanne" after they adopted David