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Win Win

2011 film directed by Thomas McCarthy

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Good writing, quality acting results in well-hidden minor classic

  • Aug 29, 2011
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 can thank content delivery outlets like cable on-demand for making available via alternate means.

Paul Giamatti is a struggling lawyer (he shares a small older two-office building haunted by a clogged toilet and a clanging furnace with Jeffrey Tambor's CPA) who is the court-appointed counsel for Burt Young (Rocky's manager), a seemingly humble old man who has enough money to support himself in his own home, but is in dementia and in need of constant care.  Giamatti makes a fateful decision to become Young's guardian (Young's daughter has been estranged for 20 years and Giamatti is unable to find her) during a hearing in front of the judge deciding Young's fate, a decision that becomes a dramatic conflict that blows up in his face at the movie's climax and threatens the happy existence he has established.

But this isn't a legal thriller, its an Everyman tale told with humor and drama, and Giamatti does a perfect job with the lead character in his almost-defeated slouch, his domesticated concern for wife Amy Ryan (excellent as always) and young family, and his struggling-to-get-by normalcy.  The fact that he and his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale, another great supporting actor choice) were high school wrestlers and that Giamatti and Tambor volunteer as wrestling coaches at the high school display perfectly their status and roles as middleclass Americans.

The movie's great conflict arises when Young's grandson shows up at his doorstep, we learn that the grandson doesn't like his mother any more than his grandfather does.  The grandson, played with emotional detachment by unknown first-time actor Alex Shaffer, is a tightly-wound enigma who keeps his anger tightly bottled inside most of the time, but uses it as his motivation when he wrestles.  And he does wrestle a bit, in fact quite well (the scene where Giamatti and Cannavale discover that the kid was an Ohio state champion back home is hilarious as we watch these "Glory Days" middle-aged men suddenly turn back into kids themselves)--well enough to aspire to that level again for Giamatti's downtrodden team.

When Giamatti's fateful choice early in the movie begins to unravel his domestic tranquility, we might be tempted to mark it up to typical ambulance-chaser ethics, but the writers, actors and director have established an honesty that force the audience to understand and empathize with Giamatti and his bad choice even as we know it was wrong and how it hurts those around him.  This is the kind of movie-making that has earned a viewing by more than just the few like me who stumble upon it buried in an on-demand listing.  The writing is good (the humor and drama isn't forced but flows from real people in real situations), the directing crisp (the 106 minutes--remember when all movies were this short?--bubble along quickly), and the actors perfectly cast and perfelctly capable of bringing the story to life.

It isn't a perfect piece of filmmaking--
  • Amy Ryan and Burt Young are really good in their roles--good enough to leave us wishing that they had been given more work to do.
  • the troubled kid/redemption in sports angle is such a cliche that we found ourselves thinking ahead of the writing and plotting at times.  
  • The ending seemed a bit abrupt.  With conflict resolved, the writers and directors could have shown us how more about how Giamatti and Ryan adjusted to live after conflict.  While some movies are better with an implied future because the writer/director would just show us the predictable, by this point in Win Win the creative team have established enough trust that it would be interesting to seem them play it out for a few more minutes. 
So, no, this won't make anyone's top-ten of all time lists, but right now it would be in my top ten for 2011.  Check your cable listings for showings in your area.

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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 . March 25, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
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 …
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
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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 …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … 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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