Throw out the playbook

Complications, large and small, enliven low-key drama

Winning isn’t easy for a part-time coach (Paul Giamatti) nor the high-school wrestler (Alex Shaffer) under his care.

Winning isn’t easy for a part-time coach (Paul Giamatti) nor the high-school wrestler (Alex Shaffer) under his care.

Win Win
Starring Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale. Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Win Win, a scruffy sort of feel-good movie, is much enlivened by some interesting complications and a surprisingly rich array of nuanced characterizations.

Paul Giamatti’s presence in the lead role is a conspicuous sign of the scruffiness factor, but writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) invests every aspect of the production (and its array of characters, in particular) with a wry, perceptive kind of humor. It’s another good vehicle for Giamatti, but it’s even better as a semi-edgy ensemble piece.

The basic situation may sound a little too pat, but in the hands of McCarthy and company it proves a good deal more engaging and lively than would have seemed likely. Giamatti plays a hard-pressed New Jersey lawyer and family man scrambling to make ends meet. To bring in a little extra cash, he sets himself up as the paid guardian of an elderly client (Burt Young) no longer able to supervise his own affairs.

When the client’s runaway grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) suddenly turns up in town, Mike (Giamatti) and his skeptical wife (Amy Ryan) give him temporary sanctuary in their basement. By the time the kid’s wayward mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up to belatedly claim a piece of her father’s financial pie, Kyle has started to blossom as the star of the rag-tag high school wrestling team that Mike coaches on the side.

That set-up has unmistakable potential for preachy melodrama on the one hand and serio-comic romance on the other. But McCarthy’s script friskily plays against the grain of both sets of expectations. Things do get worse, but they also get better—just not quite in the ways that you would have been inclined to predict, for better or for worse.

Complications, large and small, are the key here. Giamatti’s Mike is trying to do the right thing, but he’s also running a scam on his elderly client. Wife Jackie is scornful of his maneuverings, but increasingly implicated in them once Kyle starts to become part of the household. Alex ostensibly has a chance for redemption through wrestling, but the real chance comes from another direction and another complication.

McCarthy’s direction of the actors is especially astute in the first half of the film. Scenes are played for wry comedy, with room and attention always allowed for unspoken undercurrents of drama among the characters. A special payoff of this is that no fewer than 10 of the film’s characters have at least a moment in which they register as credibly complex people with stories of their own in play.

Mike’s office mate (Jeffrey Tambor), his small daughter Abby (Clare Foley), and the most hapless of the high school wrestlers (David W. Thompson) are particular beneficiaries of this approach.

But none more so than Bobby Cannavale as Terry, the overbearing buddy whose life is even more chaotic and unraveled than Mike’s. Choice bits of Terry’s life story sneak into the margins of the story in a marvelously offhanded way.