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Review: ‘Win Win’

Wrestling with Responsibility

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer star in

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Above: Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer star in "Win Win."


KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "Win Win" and speaks with director Tom McCarthy.


With films like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” filmmaker Tom McCarthy has revealed a knack for making films about real people. Now he looks to a high school wrestling coach for his latest film “Win Win" (opening March 31 at AMC La Jolla, Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas, and UltraStar Flower Hill). Check back tomorrow for a video of my interviews.

“Win Win” opens with Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) struggling to jog over relatively flat terrain. Then we cut to his family at home in bed.

DAUGHTER: Mommy, where's Daddy?

JACKIE: Running.

DAUGHTER: From what?

With a couple shots and a mere half dozen words filmmaker Tom McCarthy has crafted the perfect introduction to the character of Mike Flaherty. That’s efficient filmmaking because we immediately I.D. Mike as both a family man and as someone struggling through life. We also get a taste of the film's sense of humor. But what McCarthy doesn't do is tell you where his film is going. That's something he lets unfold more slowly.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Director Tom McCarthy

TOM McCARTHY: What I try to do is take my time with my films especially at the beginning so that the audience really has a moment to live, to be with these people, these characters, get to know them, get to judge them.

But hopefully to judge them as good people. And Mike is a decent guy. He runs a tiny law practice in New Jersey specializing in elderly clients. In his spare time he coaches the high school's losing wrestling team. One day he sees an opportunity to take advantage of a tempting situation. And that dilemma interested McCarthy.

TOM McCARTHY: This story of a decent family man who was really grappling with or wrestling with his own sense of responsibility and ethics. And how to marry the two in tight times. How to make responsible decisions and at the same time perform his duties or what he perceives as his duties, which is to take care of his family.

What he does is take over the guardianship of Mr. Popler, an elderly man with dementia so that he can collect the $1500 a month stipend. He's not really interested in Mr. Popler's well being. In fact he contradicts the old man's wishes to remain in his home and instead Mike places Mr. Popler in a retirement home. But then a relative unexpectedly shows up to put his scam in jeopardy.

MIKE: You looking for Mr. Popler?

KYLE: He’s my grandfather I came to live with him.

Popler's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) complicates things for Mike and the audience.

TOM McCARTHY: What happens when we see someone like that make a bad decision? That we know is wrong? That was very compelling to me. Because I think it happens more often than not… it’s decent people making bad choices, making bad decisions, how do we reconcile that?

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Paul Giamatti are the coaches of a losing high school wrestling team in "Win Win."

But Mike finds unlikely inspiration in Kyle, a slightly sullen teen with a gift for wrestling. Mike's life has gotten so bad that he feels envious of the teenager's talent.

MIKE: What’s it like to be as good as you are?

KYLE: Like I’m in control of everything.

MIKE: Must be nice.

Mike feels like his life is spinning out of control and Kyle feels like he can only control things on the wrestling mat. But Kyle's success comes in part from the difficulties he's had to face in real life.

TOM McCARTHY: It’s not so much about the ABC’s of wrestling or what particular move he’s gonna make, it’s much more of an emotional game for him now that he has mastered the craft of wrestling. Sadly it’s drawing on a lot of personal pain that he had to experience.

McCarthy was particularly pleased with real life teen wrestler Alex Shaffer who plays Kyle.

TOM McCARTHY: You sort of get that although he’s very quiet and reserved, there’s still something, the mind is working under there you can kind of see it happen which I think felt very authentic to me. I think he found a way to be, to make his directness be very charming.

Shaffer is impressive in his film debut as both an actor and wrestler. McCarthy serves up a sports film but one filtered through his own unique prism -- sports are there to reflect the characters and illuminate them. Mike's team of likable losers reflects his own personal and profession slump while Kyle's intense focus while wrestling reveals a yet untapped potential in him

In the end, McCarthy delivers a satisfying but not conventional ending, one in which Mike and Kyle both reassert control over their lives. Mike regains control by taking responsibility for his decisions -- both the good and the bad ones -- and proving to us that he is the decent guy we initially pegged him to be. And Kyle comes to terms with his less than stellar mom so that he can move forward with his own life. Both are presented with flaws as well as virtues, and that's what makes them so appealing and so easy to identify with.

TOM McCARTHY: My feeling is when audiences connect with characters they are going to go for the ride. They are going to believe it, they are going to enjoy that experience.

And that's one thing you can count on in McCarthy's films, connecting with the characters. The tagline for "Win Win" says, "In the game of life, you can't lose 'em all." Well in the film world, McCarthy has 3 wins and no losses. So it's a win win for audiences, and it's a reminder that there are fresh ideas and compelling stories out there. Thank you, Mr. McCarthy!

"Win Win" is rated R for language.

Companion viewing" "The Station Agent," "The Visitor," "Vision Quest"

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