The Austin Chronicle

Win Win

Rated R, 106 min. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 8, 2011

We first see only the backside of first-class character actor Paul Giamatti, but there's no mistaking that slump. Writer/director McCarthy frames him from behind, as Giamatti's half-hearted hero jogs along a winter-stripped wooded path. Two other runners flank him and glide by with ease. Our guy, it seems, just can't keep up. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an elder-care attorney whose practice has hit a rough patch. He's father to two young girls; husband to Jackie (Ryan), an affectionate but needling wife; and coach to a losing high school wrestling team. On the heels of Mike's outpacing in the woods, McCarthy introduces another metaphor, this one a little more inventive if no less obvious: A stain-glassed suncatcher in the shape of an angel clatters to the floor in Mike's eldest daughter's room, its suction cup having lost its fix on the window. Part of the suncatcher is broken. "Shit," the 7-year-old replies. An angel has lost a wing, and Mike – a decent, if uninspiring guy – is en route to his own fall from grace. Under mounting debt, he bilks an aging client named Leo (Young) for extra cash, knowing the old man's dementia virtually guarantees his malfeasance will go undetected. Enter Leo's teenage grandson, Kyle (Shaffer) – a taciturn runaway and, as it turns out, a crackerjack wrestler, too. Shaffer, a first-time actor, is an unnerving screen presence, that rare young person utterly uninterested in ingratiating himself with an audience. Outside of the mat, a shrug is Kyle at his most demonstrative: He is polite but withholding, a placid lake in a teenage boy's body – that is, until his junkie mom resurfaces and we catch waves of Kyle's deep rage. But let's be clear: Win Win might as well be subtitled "How Mike Got His Mojo Back." Kyle – the most interesting and unique characterization here – is pure plot device, not a person of real interest to McCarthy (how else to explain the muddy thinking of back-to-back scenes displaying Kyle's violent nature – the first played as terrifying, the next as farce?). In his short career (The Station Agent, The Visitor), McCarthy has established himself as a craftsman of conventionally quirky pictures that are entirely about ingratiating themselves with the audience. Within those limited parameters, Win Win works, its every joke, every emotional beat, even its journey from harsh winter to verdant spring, anticipated and fulfilled in comfy clockwork fashion. Let's call it a draw. (See "Amateurs and Old Friends," April 8, for more on the film.)

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