If it wasn’t obvious enough already, let it be known; I love Paul Giamatti. I could watch him watching paint dry and come away satisfied. He may have come to epitomize the average-Joe in middle America, but every performance still offers something idiosyncratically his, whether it’s the puppy dog eyes or endearing monologues. When I found out he was teaming up with Thomas McCarthy, director of the beautiful Station Agent, for his third directorial outing, it seemed like a pairing destined for on-screen gold.
Win Win lays it’s cards on the table from the outset, opening with Mike (Giamatti) jogging in a picturesque New Jersey woodland. A jogging protagonist is so often a signifier for a man with a lot on his mind and sure enough, we cut to Mike rushing to say goodbye to his family, realizing he hasn’t rung the tree surgeon, and that his office boiler is on the blink. Within five minutes, it’s clear that Mike’s trajectory isn’t about to take the same life changing nuances as McCarthy’s more enigmatic leads, such as Peter Dinklage’s outcast Fin, and Richard Jenkins’ academic Walter. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just new territory for McCarthy, so used to drawing finely tuned performances in acute character driven pieces. Win Win is a full-out ensemble creation, and what an ensemble it is; Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Canavale and scene-stealing newcomer, Alex Shaffer.
When Mike fraudulently takes guardianship money to care for an elderly client (whilst stashing him in a care home), he doesn’t bank on the man’s grandson turning up. Kyle is a troubled high-schooler, who winds up having to lodge with Mike and his family. Mike discovers Kyle is a superb wrestler, who could lead the flailing high-school team he coaches, to triumph. The family eventually warm to and nurture Kyle, who is carved a simple yet peculiar character by Shaffer. Jackie (Ryan) is likable as the strong matriarch, but she still feels somewhat outdated and wasted. In onc scene where Kyle and Jackie stroll through the supermarket, Jackie chips away at his secretive past as they pick up chocolate cereal and spaghetti. It’s tender and warm, McCarthy at his best. She soon caves in to Kyle’s sweet and vulnerable character, later proclaiming, ‘I just want to say, we love you’.
McCarthy’s third film continues to demonstrate his penchant for characters on the fringe of American society, who come to blossom and flourish. In The Station Agent Fin’s self-exiled dwarf learns to accept company, in The Visitor Walter’s stuffy widow embraces life thanks to illegal immigrants, and in Win Win rebellious teen Kyle is given a chance to succeed in his talent. However, the film still feels like it wants to be two stories, one a moral offbeat family drama, and the other an underdog feel-good comedy. It could have worked great as either, but as both it feels watered down and slightly abandoned. But that again is McCarthy’s style, refusing to neatly tie his story in a bow. The film is comfortable amongst other recent indie’s addressing the values of contemporary American life; The Company Men and Up In The Air seem like suitable bedfellows.
Win Win is a worthy addition to McCarthy’s catalogue, one with wider and more multiplex-friendly appeal, but also some added Giamatti goodness.