Let me know if this premise sounds familiar: Win Win focuses on a down-on-his-luck man, running a legal practice into the red and coaching a high school wrestling team that hasn’t won a single game in recent memory. By chance, he happens upon a lonely and eccentric teenager who just happens to be a wrestling ace. So the coach takes the kid under his wing, integrating him into house and home as the wrestling team is guided to a better season. Drama ensues and heartstrings are pulled.
There’s no denying that at first glance, this film has very little to offer that we haven’t already seen a million times before. Indeed, the narrative is predictable and succumbs to quite a few annoying cliches. However, this film does have something unique to set itself apart: Humor.
This is a surprisingly funny movie and there’s no time wasted in showing it. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments to be found through the proceedings, in addition to several chuckles here and there. The jokes are dry, witty and self-effacing, but never shocking or mean (“I stole a car.” “What?! You can’t even drive!” “Yeah, that was part of the problem.”). This approach to comedy meshes very nicely with our characters’ development, helping to make them more sympathetic by virtue of the fact that we’re laughing with them as opposed to laughing at them.
Of course, the cast deserves a lot of credit for making the dialogue pop. Paul Giamatti does especially well, but what would you expect? He’s playing a shlubby guy with low self-esteem and a wry sense of humor who always screws up despite having the best intentions. This role is so far into Giamatti’s wheelhouse that I’m hesitant to give him any praise for it. Ditto for Amy Ryan, late of “The Wire” (have I mentioned that there are a lot of really talented alumni from that show?), who plays Giamatti’s wife. Solid as her performance was, she could’ve done it just as well in her sleep.
Far more credit is due to newcomer Alex Shaffer, himself a successful high school wrestler, in the role of our young athlete. What really makes Kyle a good character to watch — and a welcome break from the expected tropes of the genre — is that he clearly isn’t stupid or even mildly retarded. There’s clearly a brain in that skull, but he’s so introverted that it’s nearly impossible to tell what he’s thinking. Still, Kyle is a refreshingly active character, trying to help solve conflicts instead of sitting back and letting the adults do all the work. In fact, it’s worth noting that he gets back into wrestling simply because he asks to join practice and not through some improbable series of events. Hell, any 16-year-old who would go from Ohio to New Jersey in the process of running away certainly deserves to be considered a proactive character.
I’ll grant that he does some typical “dumb teenager” stuff (smoking, getting tattoos, etc.), but Kyle’s so polite about it that he’s definitely not a punk of any kind. Really, the only disadvantage this character has is his background. It isn’t just that he never stood a chance, it’s that his family life is completely and utterly FUBAR.
The problems begin with Kyle’s mother, a (maybe) recovering junkie named Cindy. Apparently, Cindy was such a failure of a human being that Kyle ran away to be with Leo Poplar, the grandfather he never met, whom the state has just labeled as “incapacitated” due to dementia in his old age. Coincidentally, Leo has a considerable sum of money (how he got it was never made clear, to my annoyance) and he happens to be a client of Giamatti’s character. Naturally, Cindy enters the picture to reclaim her son and to take her dad’s inheritance in the process.
On the surface, it’s easy to hate Cindy. After all, Kyle obviously fears and/or despises her, she’s got a long criminal history, she disappears off the map when her father needs a guardian and she doesn’t even call back when some family in New Jersey says that they have her son. But then Cindy materializes in the form of Melanie Lynskey. Somehow, Lynskey manages to make the character so pathetic that it’s difficult to completely hate her. She’s not the evil witch we’d been led to believe, she’s just a fuck-up. She’s not greedy, she’s just desperate. This is a character who can’t help hurting others because emotional pain is all she knows.
Kyle and Cindy are both characters who are made watchable by the fact that their emotional and psychological scars are plain to see. These are both deeply injured characters and I give their actors kudos for making those injuries visible without making them overly blunt.
This is a very strong cast of actors, with the sole exception of Bobby Cannavale. He plays Terry — the “best friend” character — as a perverted, douchey, egotistic and rather stupid loudmouth. Sure, he’s there for his friends when they need him, but this character stuck out like a sore thumb next to the sympathetic and three-dimensional cast. His brand of humor clashed horribly with the rest of the cast, making him look like an unnecessary comic relief. Also, there’s a subplot involving Terry’s ex-wife that blows a flat tire at the starting line and never goes anywhere.
Honestly, I’d say that Cannavale got the screentime and dialogue that should have gone to Jeffrey Tambor. After all, Tambor is already playing Giamatti’s co-worker and assistant coach, so it’s not that much of a leap. Tambor is always a sight for sore eyes — especially in a comedy — but he gets very little to do here. His character does get some solid jokes, but only before disappearing into the ether about halfway through. He doesn’t even get a development arc of any kind. Note to writer/director Thomas McCarthy: This is not a good use of your Jeffrey Tambor!
I’m really quite flabbergasted how a script could be so good at comedy and crafting believable characters, yet be so awful at telling a structured narrative. It doesn’t become really obvious until the third act, but there are so many subplots and running jokes (the boiler, for instance) that never get a satisfactory resolution or in fact, any resolution at all. The film gives us that worthless cliche about a character being universally hated after getting caught in a lie, but the movie doesn’t go anywhere interesting with it, nor does it pay off in any way. Hell, the whole film ends with an anti-climax, gearing up for a big legal fight that ultimately never happens. A character gets a change of heart completely out of left field and we’re left without a high to go out on. Aaaargh!
Win Win has a lot going for it, except that it fails to stick the landing. The narrative is either predictable or implausible in several places and a lot of subplots end up going nowhere. Nevertheless, the characters are very well-developed, the cast is quite strong and the jokes are just right. The film has such heart and humor that its flaws are more disappointing than deal-breaking. Take that as a recommendation.