Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011)

With his gentile, if drably ironic, style and textured, nuanced characters, Thomas McCarthy's Win Win respects and subverts two formulaic, rigid genres: the sports film and the marketably "indie" movie. Set in New Providence, a borough in New Jersey's densely populated Union County, Win Win nevertheless feels isolated and lonely, populated by a scattered collection of reject teenagers both literal and metaphoric who wile away the time in a chilly, winter-barren suburb with nothing but a lot of broken or preemptively denied dreams to stir them. It's the sort of place made for an underdog story, but this is not a film of big victories; though he finds the expressive and emotional value of sports in some people's lives, McCarthy does not suggest that sports holds much relevance in a world beset with political and simple human issues. It is, at best, a salve to alleviate deep wounds that require stronger medicine.

Emphasizing the sense of faded glory and economically dessicated comfort from the start, McCarthy opens the film by tracking forward with Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a local attorney, jogging in a park as two younger runners in sleek, form-fitting black barrel past his stocky, yellow-sweatshirted frame. Mike jogs not to stay in shape but because his doctor recommended it to control panic attacks brought on by financial worries. Effectively, he ties nagging terror over his economic straits to his physical deterioration as an out-of-shape, middle-aged man, which seems a recipe for a worse outcome rather than an improvement. Faced with his failing practice collapsing, the otherwise good Mike makes a mercenary decision that soon meets with complications he could not have anticipated and cannot hope to control if some people learn the truth. Amazingly, this ticking time-bomb manages to get tied into high-school wrestling.

Handling the case of Leo (Burt Young), an elderly man suffering from the onset of dementia, Mike initially feels that, as no one can reach his long-estranged daughter, the state will inevitably take over legal guardianship and place the poor man in a nursing home against his will. But when Mike sees how much his guardian receives as a fee every week, he volunteers to watch after Leo, only to dump him in the same home and collect the checks. Instantly, Mike's earlier pithiness about the greedy actions of his colleagues holds no water, as he plunges down a rabbit hole that the inoffensive, nice man surely wouldn't be able to handle under the best of circumstances. But just to speed things up, he returns to Leo's empty house one day to find the man's never-met grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), waiting there alone to see his grandfather.

This has all the trappings of a grim comedy of errors, and at times it indulges that current of simmering irony. Primarily, however, Win Win operates on a more gracefully dramatic level, its comedy arising from the quasi-gallows humor of such dull life. Kyle, with that unwashed clump of bleach-bond dye, expressionless face and mumbled monotone, is funny for the same reason he is pitiable: his social maladjustment gives him a warped innocence that makes him as forthright as a child, but that stunted emotional growth is not merely sad but unsettling. In a town defined by its muted ennui, a place where the only vivid hue is in the mockingly childish yellow of buses and high school color, Kyle stands out as somehow more emotionally retarded than his surroundings, and even Mike's wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), an amusing hardass who thankfully never lapses into never-pleased bitch territory, cannot help but take the kid in, if for no other reason than delay the time bomb until after it gets sent back home.

McCarthy's previous film, The Visitor, subverted expectations when it made a white man (who was returning to his own property, no less) feel like the foreigner among two immigrants. Instead of heading off to some developing nation to find himself among the poverty and sociopolitical strife of the have-nots, the protagonist immersed himself in culture merely by embracing the mixing customs just outside his door. It was a brilliantly simple way to play both sides of the field without ever feeling like he was covering his bases. Likewise, Win Win does not do anything radical to the setting or the approach, merely skewing matters just enough to make a potentially forced commentary human. Kyle's placement in this maturity-sucking pit creates not so much foils as kindred spirits that illuminate each other. Mike, who coaches the high school wrestling team that was as bad then as it is now under his guidance, clearly uses coaching to hold on to a feeling of youth, but when he discovers that Kyle not only used to wrestle but was nearly state champion, the look of glee and hunger on his face is as plain as the nose on it.

Yet Mike does not live vicariously through Kyle, as we might expect. Instead, he reverts back to his youth to view Kyle as a role model, the boy's physical finesse grounding him even as his own maturity and kindness gives as much shape to Kyle's life as the refreshing return to sport. In the ring, Kyle gets out his pent-up aggression (the slaps he requests from Mike before going out there as troubling as they are hysterically awkward), while at home he proves a considerate, compassionate young man. Shaffer, making his screen debut, could not be better. He brings a fragility to his every move in and out of the ring, but he also has that caged-animal look in his eye and tight frame, every tendon pulled taut ready to explode at any moment. Likewise, Giamatti, playing his usual schlub, is pitch-perfect. Sometimes I joke that Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman must compare casting calls for middle-aged, ever-winded losers, but one can see Giamatti's unique skills on display here. Hoffman's stunted sadsack act carries fits of terrifying rage, the overweight endpoint of Kyle's withdrawn nature in this film. Giamatti's anger, on the other hand, is never more than a pitiful flare-up of impotent misanthropy. He's the sedate American cousin of Johnny from Mike Leigh's Naked, someone whose self-loathing, even at its darkest, never truly breaks past the rotten sphere around him. His slip-ups and outbursts are on a smaller scale that fits the Thorazine-and-Adderall sloth of McCarthy's New Providence.

No less impressive are the character actors McCarthy assembles to add flavor and humanity to the film. Jeffrey Tambor channels the authoritative insecurity of his Hellboy character as Vig, the assistant coach who constantly looks to Mike for approval. Bobby Cannavale's Terry takes the confused maturity levels to new levels of nebulous madness: driven half-mad by his wife's cuckolding, Terry inserts himself into everything with double the insecurity of his friends. Where Mike enjoys basking in Kyle's talents, Terry seems to want Kyle to either beat up the man now living in his home with his wife or to somehow gain Kyle's essence in some kind of reverse-Etoro transfer of life force. But it is Burt Young, the grumbling heavy from such films as Chinatown and the Rocky pictures, who steals the film. He never overplays Leo's dementia, instead giving Leo a tinge of melancholy he can never quite place, his fading mind able to cling to the notion of his desire to return home as he deals with unforeseen stresses. His interactions with the grandson he never met, the grandson he might soon forget, are heartbreaking, the two of them silently bonding and comforting each other for the pain caused by the missing link in this family portrait, the absent daughter who birthed and neglected Kyle.

Her entrance, sadly, throws a cog into the film. Where these amusing, complicated, human portraits interacted and ruminated without dramatic force to bind them to a strict narrative, the mother's emergence forces everything into typical misunderstandings and big moments rather than the subtle growth seen heretofore. Melanie Lynskey is a terrific actress, and she gives this part her all, but she essentially plays a one-note monster of self-absorption who cannot even call out Mike effectively for his twisted scheme involving Leo because she's really just mad he beat her to it. A great deal of the film's grace leaves when she comes into the picture, and it never truly recuperates.

Nevertheless, Win Win stands out for the extreme depth of character and the nonjudgmental, even lilting use of irony. This movie feels like what a Coen brothers film might be if that filmmaking pair made their affections for their oddball characters a bit more plain. McCarthy's direction relies on ambiance and the power of his actors to fill the gulfs in his uncluttered, distraction-less frame, but damned if he doesn't know how to pick 'em. Win Win is perhaps the lesser of his three films to this point, yet it's the one that most interested me for its ability to turn overdone genres on their heads without being radical or confrontational about it. I laughed quite a bit during this movie, but I also felt an overwhelming sense of recognition for these people, for the eroding comfort of those who never branched out and now face economic hardships that ignore their modesty, and for the troubled kid with the chewed wad of Juicy Fruit for hair.

McCarthy's films are all socially relevant, from the millennial drift of The Station Agent to the open, if nuanced post-9/11 commentary of The Visitor, and Win Win clearly shows an America in financial decline, the emotional stagnation of its adults (even Jackie has a Bon Jovi tattoo) perhaps a statement on America's own childish feelings of superiority and worth that held over from the Reagan years, a similar period of self-delusion. McCarthy never hides his views in allegory, but his elegant approach, his focus on character over statement, turns overt commentary into wisps of suggestion that hang over characters instead of defining them. My quibbles with Win Win's last half-hour aside, this is yet more proof of McCarthy's status as one of the most original and remarkable voices in contemporary American cinema.


  1. Very nice review. But honestly, this whole site is filled with great reviews of older and classic films.

    Fantastic stuff Jake.

  2. Win Win had its moments, though a little too predictable for my taste. I prefer McCarthy's previous films, the sports element in Win Win is a little too "americanized" for me(I'm European)

    Barney’s Version, also with Paul Giamatti, was good,and worth watching-is in my top 10 of 2011, and I plan to review it soon, if you're interested

  3. It's absolutely one of the best American films of 2011.

    Now we can add Rehn's brilliant DRIVE to that shortlist!