Sundance Review: “Win Win”

4 REV Win Win
Kimberly Wright/20th Century Fox Film Corp

Mike (Paul Giamatti, left) coaches high school wrestler Kyle (breakout star Alex Shaffer). 

A winning comedy about an anxious lawyer features Paul Giamatti’s best role in years.

Since expanding from acting to directing with The Station Agent and The Visitor, Tom McCarthy has shown an unerring touch with minor-key, character-based comedy and emotionally honest drama. Those qualities are again front and center in his third feature, Win Win.

It’s no surprise McCarthy is a skilled actor’s director, but the heartfelt compassion and observational acuity that infuse his films is what distinguishes them. He has shown a rare ability to shape unexpected connections among 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 in America.

Fox Searchlight has carved a robust niche with releases that revolve around 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 similarly burdened but far less sour than many of his screen characters, Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a nice-guy New Jersey lawyer whose practice is foundering. 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 and rescues the team while emerging 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 high school wrestling buddy Joe Tiboni, McCarthy and his screenplay never strike 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 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.

Cannavale lands laugh after laugh as likable palooka Terry, who still wants to be one of the cool kids. When he insinuates himself as an 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 about recognizable people doing their best to carve out a decent life in a punishing economy.

Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriters: Tom McCarthy, Joe Tiboni
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Melanie Lynskey
Producers: Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London, Lisa Maria Falcone
Rated R, 106 minutes