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It’s no surprise that McCarthy is a skilled actor’s director, but the heartfelt compassion and observational acuity that infuses the writer-director’s films is what distinguishes them most. In all three features, he has shown a rare ability to shape unexpected connections between very real people, guiding them toward gently uplifting outcomes that are neither manipulative nor sentimental. That might make him one of the least cynical filmmakers working in America.
Fox Searchlight has carved a robust niche in the past with releases that center on underdogs and borderline losers enduring without sacrificing a firm sense of who they are. Think Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. In many ways, Win Win fits that mold, which should make it McCarthy’s most broadly appealing movie to date.
In a role that’s similarly burdened but far less sour than many of his screen characters, Paul Giamatti grounds the story as Mike Flaherty, a nice-guy New Jersey lawyer whose practice is floundering, his office is falling to bits, and the high school wrestling team he coaches with curmudgeonly Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) hasn’t won a match all season.
Willing to do anything to keep his family happy, Mike hides his financial anxieties and panic attacks from his wife Jackie, a tough but sympathetic Jersey girl in Amy Ryan‘s funny, flinty performance. Mike shares his troubles only with his pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who’s busy stewing about his ex-wife and her new lover enjoying the jacuzzi he paid for.
When Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client with early-stage dementia, presents an opportunity to earn a monthly commission as his guardian, Mike steps into a legal and ethical gray area. Things threaten to get complicated when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the grandson Leo has never met, arrives unannounced from Ohio. But Kyle turns out to be an ace wrestler, who rescues the team and steadily emerges from the shell of his impenetrable teenage affectlessness.
Only when Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up fresh out of rehab and looking to secure a chunk of her estranged father’s cash do the repercussions of Mike’s actions begin.
Working from a story he wrote with his own former high school wrestling buddy, Joe Tiboni, McCarthy’s screenplay never strikes a false note. There’s no artificially heroic turnaround for the team, but a steady boost in morale, a shared taste of redemption and a strengthening of friendships as Kyle becomes an unlikely positive force. The awkward path toward mutual love and acceptance between Kyle and the Flaherty family is mapped with the same integrity.
Kyle is drawn by the writers with delicate strokes, and in a breakout performance, newcomer Shaffer is genuinely moving as a good-hearted, damaged kid and a motivated sportsman who is the antithesis of the standard-issue screen teen jock. It’s as much his movie as Giamatti’s, though Mike’s understated sweetness and the melancholy pragmatism with which he faces up to his transgression make this arguably the actor’s best role since Sideways.
McCarthy’s films invariably are ensemble efforts, and in addition to the wonderful Ryan, there are delicate but incisive characterizations from Tambor, Young and David Thompson as the wrestling team’s most athletically challenged member. And Lynskey brings welcome soft shadings to the story’s disruptive element.
Cannavale lands laugh after laugh as likable palooka Terry, who still wants to be one of the cool kids. When he insinuates himself as assistant coach, the interplay with Giamatti and Tambor is a blast.
Shot by Oliver Bokelberg with a warm feel for the woodsy New Jersey locations, the film never condescends to its suburban milieu or unglamorous characters. It mines a lighter vein than McCarthy’s previous work, but there’s a lovely somber undercurrent at play here about recognizable people doing their best to carve out a decent life in a punishing economy.
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