Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Win Win

Directed by Thomas McCarthy.

2011. Rated R, 106 minutes.

Alex Shaffer
Amy Ryan
Bobby Cannavale
Burt Young
Melanie Lynskey
Sharon Wilkins
Margo Martindale
David W. Thompson
Nina Arianda

Mike (Giamatti) is a lawyer struggling to keep his practice afloat. One of his clients is Leo (Young), an elderly gentleman whom the state deems incapable of caring for himself. They want to move him into a rest home. His only relative, an estranged daughter is nowhere to be found. Of course, Leo thinks he’s perfectly fine and wants to keep living in his own house. Mike is going along with the state’s program until he learns that Leo’s guardian is paid $1500 per month. He himself assumes guardianship under the pretenses of making sure Leo’s wish will be granted and he will be well taken care of. He then dumps the old man in a home, anyway and begins collecting the monthly checks. Things are going according to plan until Leo’s 16 year old grandson Kyle (Shaffer) shows up out of the blue. No one, including Leo, even knew of the boy’s existence. Since he’s obviously a troubled kid, and to keep his lie going, Mike takes him in.

Despite his issues, Kyle is a nice, quiet kid. Eventually we find out his mother Cindy (wonderfully played by Lynskey) is both alive and a drug addict. This has obviously taken its toll on the boy. He wants nothing to do with her and she seemingly wants nothing to do with her father. It’s no wonder Kyle enjoys being part of Mike’s family. Shaffer handles the role well. It is also well-written. Kyle and the other kids actually feel like genuine teenagers as opposed to an adult in an adolescent body as is the case in plenty of movies. Much of his communication to adults is eerily similar to that of many real teenaged boys including my own son, through shrugs and nods. It is a subtle, yet effective performance.

Less subtle is the work of Paul Giamatti. That he turns in an excellent portrayal should go without saying to anyone familiar with him. Admittedly, Mike is a character that’s right up his alley: a guy who is often exasperated, slightly sweaty and prone to loud verbal outbursts. Still, he makes Mike convincingly simple in motive yet complex in action. In another actor’s hands, the character may have come across as too dastardly. Giamatti makes him believable as a guy who, for the most part, is on the straight and narrow, but the desire to feed his family leads him to try slipping something past the world.

The two main characters combine to make Win Win a tricky proposition. Our empathy clearly lies with Kyle. How we feel about Mike is not such a sure thing. We’re not certain we like him but we want him to come out victorious in what becomes a custody battle over both Kyle and Leo. Whether or not he’s a great choice is debatable. What is not debatable is that he’s better than the alternative. Still, the alternative has at least as much right as he does.

Win Win navigates these complex issues without becoming complicated itself. Instead of pouring out every ounce of melodrama it can muster, it does most things in a matter-of-fact manner. Supporting players provide comedy and Mike’s family gives us cuteness while the story holds our interest. The key to it all is something I’ve already said: we feel for Kyle. We really care what happens to the kid.

MY SCORE: 8/10

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