10 10 2012

It’s been well over a year since “Win Win” hit theaters, and I’ve somehow managed to avoid writing a review.  It was my favorite movie of 2011, and I’ve seen it no less than five times.  Why the wait?  I think I admire Thomas McCarthy mastery far too much to shame it with words that don’t accurately describe just how stirringly brilliant this movie is and how strongly it resonated with me.

I don’t even think it’s hyperbolic in the slightest to say that if Frank Capra were making movies today, they would look a whole lot like “Win Win.”  Light-hearted while tackling serious themes and always celebrating the decency of the average American, McCarthy captures all the buoyancy of the old classic comedies but doesn’t fall into a trap of idealistic naïveté.  The writer/director finally strikes gold after “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” just barely missed the mark.  (He did co-write “Up” as well, which is as close to pitch-perfect emotionally as you can get.)  This movie, for my money, puts him in the highest echelon of modern humanist filmmakers alongside Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman.

McCarthy’s film, much like Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” is one distinctly of its time but also for all times.  “Win Win” shows how the specific money crunch resulting from the recession can cause us to commit immoral deeds, but it’s also a more general parable about weathering hard times by standing firm in our convictions.  The movie never feels like a morality play, though, because McCarthy never preaches.  He just tells a story by truthfully depicting human emotion and conscience.  That’s where the best drama always comes from, and the conflict that plays out is so compelling because we never doubt its authenticity.

The daunting trials and minuscule triumphs of Paul Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty, a suburban New Jersey lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach, are a perfect microcosm of the country’s struggles to maintain dignity in the face of economic duress.  Mike takes on the guardianship for one of his clients, Leo, a very wealthy man with a deteriorating mental capacity, in order to gain $1,500 in extra income per month.  But rather than actually take care of Leo in his home as he had requested, Mike ships him off to a nursing home.

However, when he goes to lock up the house, Mike gets an interesting present waiting for him on the doorstep: Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a very frank teenager kicked to the curb by his selfish mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who just happens to be Leo’s daughter.  He does what he perceives to be the right thing to house him for the night; however, his penny-pinching, bleeding heart of a wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) insists on making Kyle a part of the family until such a time when Cindy comes to get him.

The added benefit from that $1,500 is starting to get very, very slim until Kyle reveals himself to be a world-class wrestler who had given up on the sport because of personal troubles.  But with some encouragement, Mike gets to suit up again and turn around his failing high school team.  Kyle soon becomes a psychological boon to every aspect of life for the Flahertys; he makes Mike’s team stronger and his family more cohesive.

But you know McCarthy isn’t about to let Mike off scot-free.  Without giving too much away, he crafts what I believe to be one of the most brilliant conclusions in recent memory, one that somehow manages to deal out equal parts justice and mercy to the characters.  A win-win, so to speak, would send the wrong message, and a lose-lose would destroy the light-hearted tone of the film.  A Pyrrhic victory, though, is definitely on the table because it is the only small victory most Americans are eking out these days.

And every bit of “Win Win” oozes this everyman charm.  It begins in the modest, sincere script that captures us at both our best and worst.  It continues through the acting of Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, who both bring a startlingly touching authenticity.  And it finishes with the direction of Thomas McCarthy, which allows equal parts humor and human drama to shine when appropriate.  “Win Win” is more than just the best portrayal of America circa 2011; it is – without a doubt – the best film of 2011.  A



One response

23 10 2012
Mark Walker

I’ve had notes on this kicking around for a while myself and I’ve never actually put it into review form. I think I may be suffering a similar problem as yourself; I don’t want to do it a disservice. I wouldn’t rate it as the best of 2011 but it’s certainly amongst them. Good write-up man.

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