‘Win Win’ hearkens back to old-Hollywood dramedies

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Win Win

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Written by Tom McCarthy

USA, 2011

Tom McCarthy seems like a really nice guy.  He makes really nice films.  Films that would make Frank Capra proud.  Films that the whole family can gather ’round the ol’ set to enjoy. Yet for all the safeness and syrupy domestication of his pictures, McCarthy elicits strong performances, is an able technician, and a good screenwriter.  His films, with a camera that rarely emphasizes and with clear-cut segues separating the three-act structure, are throwbacks to a classic Hollywood model.

As simple as his films look on the surface – taking a cue from Wyler, Wilder, and Capra, where performance took precedence and the lens remained unobtrusive – it’s strange that McCarthy’s films are actually an anomaly amidst a hyper-stylized Hollywood and often-plotless independent film world. McCarthy is a far cry from reaching the same class of directors as the aforementioned, but his films are nonetheless well-rounded and enjoyable.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) owns a struggling law practice.  The high-school wrestling team he coaches is struggling even more.  In a desperate attempt to make some side money he lies to a judge, telling her that he will personally care for his dementia-suffering, and particularly wealthy, client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young).  Mike instead puts Leo in a nursing home and pockets the monthly caretaker check.  Simple, right?  It is, until Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is a stoic teenager.  He’s rough on the outside but gentle on the inside.  He also just so happens to be a star wrestler.  He’s run away from his drug-addicted mother to stay with Leo, but ends up crashing in Mike’s basement despite the initial wariness of Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan).

McCarthy’s gentle film never really pushes any buttons and no true conflict arises until the latter part of the film, but its sincerity, clever humor, and underdog schema are enough to keep the audience involved to the point when Kyle’s mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) shows up.

Here’s the problem with Win Win: the proverbial crap never hits the fan.  Problems arise, tempers flare, characters sulk and lash out, but everyone emerges too unscathed and the return to normalcy happens too easily.  At the end of the film we’ll leave with a smile on our faces, we’ll chat about the great story we saw, and we’ll go to the cinema for McCarthy’s follow-up, but while in the theater we’ll never have that moment of true, nail-biting tension that every great script and film has.

If safe cinema is not your thing, steer far clear of Win Win. If you’re on the edge of your seat every time George Bailey nearly jumps off that bridge in It’s A Wonderful Life, then this might just be right up your alley.

Neal Dhand

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