Monday, May 2, 2011

"Win Win" Wins

      Thomas McCarthy’s latest film Win Win is well worth seeing, though it’s only playing at the Kenwood Movie Theatre and it’s been there a couple of weeks.  It stars Paul Giamatti as a lawyer in a small New Jersey city, who takes on custodianship of an older client (Burt Young) in addition to working a second job as a high school wrestling coach.  This leads to the man’s troubled grandson, on the run from his mother, showing up and forcing Giamatti and his wife, played by Amy Ryan, to question what family commitments and financial obligations mean to them.
It’s a very funny movie, but with an understated, almost gentle, rhythm and it takes a while to begin cranking the plot because McCarthy is more interested in setting up the characters and delineating their relationships.  He employed a similar method in The Visitor (2008), where New York police officers taking Tarek into custody because of a stupid, minor mistake in the subway set the conflict in motion about thirty minutes into the film.  The Station Agent (2003) was so focused on the developing relationship between the three main characters that, though there was a fable structure, there wasn’t exactly a plot.

      Win Win feels like Jonathan Demme’s Citizens’ Band or Melvin and Howard or Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl because of the looseness of the plot and the humanity with which it treats its characters, all of whom are more complex and deeper than they seem at first.  It’s also influenced by some of the quirkiness and unexpected humor of some of Preston Sturges’s small town films like Hail The Conquering Hero, but without the toughness.  Bobby Canavale and Jeffrey Tambor are a hoot as Giamatti’s Mutt and Jeff best friends and assistant coaches.  After playing the mother from hell in Gone Baby Gone and nailing a south Boston accent, Amy Ryan plays a pragmatic and supportive mother and nails a New Jersey accent.  Alex Shaffer is an unknown quantity, which really works as the grandson who turns out to have quite a talent as a wrestler, friend, and survivor, somehow wringing a variety of notes from a flat monotone.  Melanie Lynskey has the toughest role as the boy’s passive-aggressive, emotionally manipulative, drug addict mother and it’s a testament to her skill that it’s difficult to hate her even as I hoped she’d be out of that kid’s life soon.  Margo Martindale has a small, but important, role and it’s great to see her – actually, whenever she shows up in a film, she’s a breath of wry reality (Paris, je t’aime is worth seeing just for her hilarious, heartfelt performance as a depressed, bumbling American tourist who experiences an epiphany).

      McCarthy asks some tough questions that are very current such as what members of a community owe to one another and whether the American middle class will be able to survive.  One drawback of the Kenwood:  the older Esquire-Mariemont crowd has found it and it’s wonderful that they still love movies as they did when they were in their twenties and thirties sitting through the golden decade of the 60s – 70s film, but can’t they discuss after the movie is over?

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