Monday, 23 May 2011

'Win Win' review:

"Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money... if what you want to do is make a lot of money" says Everett Sloane in 'Citizen Kane'. It's a point of view shared by Paul Giamatti's character, lawyer Mike Flaherty, in Tom McCarthy's indie comedy 'Win Win'. Unlike his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), Paul hasn't pursued the almighty dollar with any fervor and, as a result, he finds himself struggling to support his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter and keep his legal practice open. Like a figure straight out of a Robert Riskin screenplay, Paul has chosen to dedicate his life to the less than lucrative cause of helping the poor and vulnerable.

All around him expensive problems are mounting, each of them ticking time bombs ever present in his thoughts (a fact which is giving him regular anxiety attacks). A tree threatens to fall down on his house and the boiler under his office could explode at any moment, but he is unable to afford the solutions to these problems and can't bring himself to tell his wife. To make matters worse, the high school wrestling team he coaches (along with Jeffrey Tambor) can't win a single game. In an effort to solve his financial problems, Paul soon takes the desperate and deeply immoral step of becoming the legal guardian of an elderly client (Burt Young) suffering from dementia - checking him into a care home and pocketing the money intended for his upkeep. By the standards of American movies Paul is something worse than a "loser" - though this most certainly isn't the view of McCarthy's compassionate humanist film.

The scheme is complicated when the old man's estranged teenage grandson arrives on the scene. Kyle (Alex Shaffer) has run away from his unstable mother (the terrific Melanie Lynskey) and is looking to live with his grandpa, only to find him at the old folk's home apparently under the care of Paul. Unwilling to return home, Kyle moves into Paul's house where it is soon discovered that he is something of a wrestling prodigy. This accounts for the other half of the titular win-win situation, though this being a movie, things don't go smoothly for very long.

Compared alongside other Fox Searchlight indies, 'Win Win' is not all that wacky or, in reality, infused with jokes. Cannavale's man-child character is certainly written as broadly comic, and 'Arrested Development' actor Tambor can't help but be at least a little funny, but overall the film is content to provide occasional wry titters as opposed to hearty guffaws. Even the usually explosive Giamatti is oddly subdued, though he gives a compelling and watchable performance. Much like his recent turn in 'Barney's Version', Giamatti can't help but elicit sympathy and brings his unorthodox brand of charm to the role.

Meanwhile, Amy Ryan (Beadie Russell in 'The Wire') is good value as Paul's forthright and disarmingly sweet wife Jackie. Moments of tenderness and sentiment in 'Win Win' are never allowed to be cloying and are usually quickly diffused - though they last just long enough to ensure that the film has a heart. First-time screen actor Shaffer, hired because of his real-life wrestling prowess rather than his stage chops, is the only weak link amongst the cast. His delivery is wooden and his character reads as emotionless, though it's hard to be sure how much of this is down to bad acting and how much is down to his character's written emotional distance.

'Win Win' is in some ways boldly unconventional for a mainstream American film, not only in its refusal to moralise about its characters, but also in its depiction of the relationship between a sports coach and his wunderkind. The usual Hollywood narrative of their relationship would involve both parties bonding, before coming away having learned some home truths - the triumph is that they grow as people and win the big game. Here things are less clear cut and ultimate sporting victory is less than assured. But as promising as all this sounds, any recommendation of the film must come with a huge caveat.

All too often the film indulges in cringing, heavy-handed metaphor. For instance, as a half-hearted Giamatti jogs before the titles, we see him overtaken by two other joggers - at which point he stops, turns almost to camera and sighs. "Oh dear", we think, "things are not looking up for this guy". Cut to: his wife lying in bed with her daughter. "Where's daddy?" asks the little girl. "He's out running" comes the reply, before the child's all-too-cute response: "from what?" And what is a falling tree or a volatile boiler if not a sort of sword of Damocles metaphor, for forces which could quite literally crash down on his life or explode under the build-up of pressure at any moment? And being wrestled into the dirt by his pupil at the start of the film's third act is nothing if not a symbol that he has reached his lowest point. A skillful use of imagery is to be admired and enjoyed, but McCarthy's movie suffers under the weight of all too on the nose symbolism.

The film is also host to one of my pet hates, as almost every argument results in someone running out of the room hysterically - though I concede that a stroppy sixteen year-old kid, with a history of anger management issues, might behave this way (it's just irritating to watch). It must also be said that 'Win Win' contains some of the most contrived, cynical and obvious product placement seen in recent memory, with frequent mentions (and depictions) of the Nintendo Wii. These moments also break the film's believability. After all, nobody has actually played with their Wii since some time in 2010. There are also some unfortunate cack-handed comedic references to 'Star Wars' which are ironically less funny than Jar Jar Binks. All told though, 'Win Win' is as admirable as it is imperfect, mostly for its refusal to buy into the American Dream and thanks to a decent cast.

'Win Win' is out now in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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