Win Win | Movie review
The latest drama from Station Agent director Tom McCarthy ekes out a modest victory.
A lonely dwarf learns to love again. A stuffy professor “finds himself” with the help of a cheerful immigrant. A school coach meets the son he never had in a star athlete. On paper, McCarthy’s films read like treacly human-interest stories—chicken soup for the indie-movie lover’s soul. Look past the loglines, though, and you’ll see something considerably less risible: finely sketched dramas about friendship and surrogate family, and pocket-sized portraits of working-class malaise. Like 2003’s The Station Agent and 2008’s The Visitor, Win Win feels like a compulsively readable short story—fundamentally minor, but also keenly specific in its sense of place and its shaping of character.
Tabling his trademark temper tantrums, Giamatti plays a Jersey lawyer and high-school wrestling coach who takes in the teenage grandson (Shaffer) of an elderly client he’s secretly exploiting. The relationship gets more complicated when the kid proves to be an unstoppable force on the wrestling mat, and when the coach’s wife (Ryan) and family warm up to him.
An accomplished actor in his own right—he played a fabulist reporter on The Wire—McCarthy coaxes understated performances from nearly everyone onscreen. (Only Cannavale, so winning in The Station Agent, missteps here; he seems to be channeling Vince Vaughn at his laziest.) Win Win proves a bit too tidy, especially in its home stretch, when it bends over backward to absolve Giamatti’s character of his ethical crisis. But the film also shares with the writer-director’s prior work a crucial appeal: watching the distance shrink among its guarded characters, as their emotional walls are dismantled brick by brick. It’s a McCarthy specialty and the saving grace of this seriocomic crowd-pleaser.