Even Athletes Get the Blues: in Stellar Win Win and Hoop Dreams, Sports Aren't Just About Victory

by Matt Brennan
August 29, 2011 2:28 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

This week in "Now and Then," Matt Brennan writes about two sports movies — Win Win, now on DVD, and Hoop Dreams , the classic documentary from 1994 — that are about a lot more than sports. Watch the trailers below:
In the weird and wonderful films of writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), everyone’s running from something. With a homey, lived-in style and a strong command of performance, his three films behind the camera capture the particular anxiety of suburban life. And though he’s never lost his sense of humor, McCarthy’s progression from oddball character study to fully conceived narrative depicts real people and real worries. Win Win only amplifies the trend: without quite meaning to, McCarthy has emerged as a master of middle-American quiet.

Thompson on Hollywood
The dilemma for lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is money. His practice going under, he lies to a judge in order to take guardianship of an elderly man named Leo, and the monthly check that comes with it. That this seems the dishonest, desperate choice of an otherwise good man is a credit to McCarthy’s subtle script. “I’ve tried everything,” Mike tells his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale). “I have no frickin’ idea what to do!” It doesn’t hurt to have the soulful, schlubby Giamatti on the team, either; with a receding hairline and round belly, he is not a fantasy you hope to emulate. He’s emulating you.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who has run away from home. Wary as they take him in, Mike and his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), soon become protective: “I want to go to Ohio and beat the crap out of his mom,” Jackie says. The drab colors and wicked humor feel comfortable — in Win Win it’s easy to feel at home, wherever you’re from. What lingers in the mind, however, is its nuanced view of morality. When Kyle’s mom shows up, she make a play for Leo’s money just as Mike did: “Is that what this is about, $1,500?” he asks her condescendingly. “Isn’t that why you took him?” she shoots back.

Unassumingly, the film builds to a clever understanding of recession-era blues: it’s hard to do what’s right when the spoils seem to go to those who don’t. As Terry says when Kyle gets disqualified from the big match, “We were right there, Mike. Right fuckin’ there. Now we got nothin’.” Nothin’ is something, though, if it means treating people with decency, a value at the heart of McCarthy’s style. Kyle wins his matches with a move the team calls “Whatever the Fuck It Takes,” but what wins in wrestling is not always what wins in life.

Even basketball players get the blues. That’s why Hoop Dreams , Steve James’ thrilling documentary about two young Chicagoans pursuing a life in the NBA, feels as authentic to me as Win Win. These are movies “about” basketball or “about” wrestling only in that they are attuned to the vein of grief which runs through sport as it does through life.

And grief, at least as much as triumph, follows teen phenoms William Gates and Arthur Agee from the cracked pavement of Cabrini Green to the shining parquet of Westchester. Whether it’s the forlorn broken screen on the Gates’ front door or the loneliness of a single “L” train making its way past darkened streets, the fabric of the place — Chicago’s neglected neighborhoods, circa Reagan and Bush I — makes you feel like something’s been lost.

Yet Gates and Agee are unfailingly charismatic, the former steady and the latter brash; they dole out $50 of a summer job’s pay to Mom or flex for the camera, as winning as any Old Hollywood star. The games themselves are exhilarating tales of quick comebacks and quicker defeats. Crowds groan, jump, cheer, and love, while the players twist and twirl in a sweaty ballet. But the rules of the game impose themselves, always. Agee’s parents can’t afford the tuition of the tony private school he attends freshman year, forcing him to drop out; Gates receives a recruiter’s letter that promises him “gold at the end of the rainbow.”

It’s because of these glimpses outside the lines that I respond to Hoop Dreams, and why it upsets me, too. Not every kid from a bad school in a rough neighborhood can play hoops or throw touchdowns; though the non-athletes may be equally talented, intelligent, witty, and hard working, it just so happens that their area of expertise is something less valued in this country than being able to make a lay-up or a jump shot. Says a guidance counselor at the public high school to which Agee transfers, the system “doesn’t make sense”: “Once [private school students] walk in those doors, they expect to get their diploma and go to college…Whereas our students, to get out high school, for a lot of them, it’s an accomplishment.”

Despite its greatness, Hoop Dreams only alludes to the fact that for too many, life isn’t about hoops at all. It’s wholly about dreams — dreams deferred, denied, fulfilled, forgotten. It would be unfair to expect a film to do anything other than what it's trying to do, but this documentary gets so close to the issue that not addressing it more fully seems a cop-out. So we’re back to question of whatever the fuck it takes, which in sport might be the right pin or the right three-pointer at the right moment. But in the question of what’s right, of what’s just, I'd like to think it takes something else entirely.

[Win Win photo and trailer courtesy of Fox Searchlight; Hoop Dreams trailer courtesy of DocuChick, photo via moviemuser.co.uk.]

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