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Win Win

2011 film directed by Thomas McCarthy

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Seeing it Would Be a Win Win Situation

  • Mar 25, 2011
Star Rating:

So far as I can tell, seeing Win Win truly would be a win win situation; the producers and studio execs will delight at the increase in box office, and you will be watching one of the year’s best films. This is a warm, funny, intelligent, compelling, superbly cast treasure – one of those rare films in which a brain and a heart are at work. Like last year’s brilliant The Kids Are All Right, it tells a story that isn’t idealized or overplayed. The more I watched, the more it became clear that the film was less a comedy and more a social portrait; anyone can write jokes or do pratfalls, but it takes something special to generate laughter from characters and situations that are uncannily authentic. It also takes something special to make us care about what’s going on and why, even as we laugh.
The film stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey Elder Law attorney who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. His team is on a losing streak, which is embarrassing since the school’s motto is, “The Home of the Champions.” His business is failing, but he keeps this from his family. All he wants is for everyone to be happy, himself included. His client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), is in the early stages of dementia, and although he has the financial means to live in his own home, he lacks a caretaker. The one who should be stepping up to the plate is his daughter, but it has been years since the two last spoke, and worse still, she’s currently nowhere to be found. Mike assumes the responsibility, although it has more to do with a paycheck than with saving Leo from a nursing home. Although there’s no malicious intent, the resulting arrangement shows a clear disregard for Leo’s wishes – and is an indicator of Mike’s dignity, or lack thereof.

Out of the blue enters Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a scruffy teenage runaway from Ohio. His mom, as it turns out, is in rehab, and although doesn’t say much about it, it’s obvious he has no desire to go back home. This brings him to Mike’s house, where he will stay in the basement until something can be worked out. Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is initially against the idea but immediately drops her defenses, and as the film progresses, she learns to love Kyle. But I’m making her sound like a cardboard movie mom. She is, in fact, one of the most realistic and likeable characters of any I’ve recently seen in a movie. She’s nosy, no-nonsense, and opinionated in matters of parenting, but she’s also protective and nurturing – a woman with natural maternal instincts.
When it’s discovered that Kyle was a champion wrestler back in Ohio, Mike successfully gets him onto the school wrestling team. Yes, he reverses the team’s losing streak, but that isn’t the point; unlike the typical sports movie, in which the game serves as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, Win Win treats wrestling simply as an outlet for Kyle’s anger, a way for him to feel in control of his own life. There are no training montages. There’s no climactic final match. Wrestling is an aside, and nothing more. This is good because it allows for a far less routine, far more satisfying climax, one that, as the title makes obvious, depends entirely on a win win scenario. This brings me to Kyle’s mom, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who appears quite suddenly and seems awfully interested in the money she could earn by being her father’s caretaker. For all we know, her hatred of Leo is justified. But her treatment of Kyle is unforgivable. No wonder Jackie was worried about losing control and punching her.

Alex Shaffer, who makes his feature film debut in Win Win, deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kyle, one of the most convincing teenage characters of recent memory. He nails the persona – the downbeat voice, the short and direct answers, the casual body language, the moodiness and frustration. In saying as little as possible, he ultimately speaks volumes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s best scene, where Kyle accompanies Jackie on a trip to the supermarket; as they converse, we find ourselves aware of the words that aren’t actually being spoken. In its banality, it becomes one of the year’s most heartwarming moments.
Other characters add levity, and yet they never reduce the film to the level of pure silliness. One is Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), the perpetually exasperated high school coach. The other is Mike’s best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who’s distraught over his recent divorce. When Kyle joins the wrestling team, Terry formulates his own win win scenario: By helping Mike coach the team, he can mentor Kyle while at the same time distract himself from his personal problems. This may be easier said than done; even though he too was a wrestler in high school, he was never any good at it. These small touches help to make Win Win such a wonderful movie – one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. If you miss this one, you’ll be doing yourself a monumental disservice.


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March 25, 2011
sounds absolutely awesome! Thanks for this, Chris! I think it is playing nearby....
March 26, 2011
You should definitely see this one. Everyone should. It's a wonderful movie.
More Win Win (film) reviews
review by . September 04, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
*** out of ****     "Win Win" is a nice, gentle drama; and I needed that on this particular movie night. It isn't loud, it isn't insulting, and it's actually pretty good at what it does. I suppose I was drawn to it by its cast, but I got out of it much more than just a few performances. I actually invested quite a bit into it. Basically, it takes a perfectly normal story full of perfectly normal people, and engages us through both sympathy and the performances alone. There is …
review by . August 29, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
If you missed this one in theatres, you probably aren't alone.  I had never heard of it either when we found it on our cable providers on-demand list of new releases, and were sold by the trailer.  This is the kind of quiet movie made for and by adults that gets overlooked in the multi-screen megaplexes--no franchise, no remake, no graphic novel hero, no 3-D action hook means no 15-24 ticket sales means no screens available--a sad commentary on the current state of cinema which we …
review by . March 17, 2011
       Tom McCarthy’s new film Win Win is a comforting tale for these trying economic times. While the film has its heart in the right place, it ultimately lacks the energy it needs to be a “winner.”      Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a small-town New Jersey attorney struggling to find clients and work in the recession. Desperate for money to support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two children, Mike becomes …
review by . March 27, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
More like win/lose
WIN WIN   Written and Directed by Thomas McCarthy   Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer       Abby: Where’s Daddy?   Jackie: He’s running.   Abby: From what?       Thomas McCarthy’s latest film, WIN WIN, is a little movie about regular people in a small town. McCarthy is no stranger to championing the stories of the every man (perhaps best exemplified in his …
review by . March 17, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'Win Win' 'Two Jews On Film' Agree - This Is One Winning Movie (Video)
'Win Win' directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent & The Visitor) explores the depths and nuances of human relationships and shows us that in certain circumstances, even the most unlikely of characters can form a bond that will last a lifetime.      Attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is your typical Everyman.  He has a  loving wife Jackie ( brilliant Amy Ryan) and two small kids who adore him.  The only thing Mike loves almost as much …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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From wikipedia:

The film was rated 90% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes in March 2011 and, based on 155 reviews, held a 94% favorable rating in January 2012. Its critical consensus states: "Rich, wonderful characters and strong performances populate Win Win, with writer/director Thomas McCarthy continuing to emerge as a great American humanist."[1]
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4, calling the film a "gem, hilarious and heartfelt with a tough core that repels all things sappy", and "just about perfect."Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it 3 out of 4 stars, writing "You have a funny situation, and there's some truth in it and unexpected characters, well-acted, and you may not have a great film but you enjoy watching it."Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer gave it 3 out of 4 stars, writing "[Giamatti] delivers a marvel of a performance—all the more so because we forget that he is performing." He concluded "Win Win doesn't quite hit the high notes of grace and revelation that The Station Agent and The Visitor achieved, but McCarthy and his able cast pull off a similar mix of humor and pathos, smiles and angst." Daniel Sarath from online blog New In Cinema gave it 4/5, stating "Win Win is visual evidence that a film doesn't have to be pushing boundaries or walking in uncharted territory to stand out from the crowd. As long as you have a talented ...
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