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Win Win

Pinned to the Mat

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Tom McCarthy came out swinging as the writer/director of The Station Agent in 2003. 2007’s The Visitor provided definitive proof that the longtime actor also had talent behind the camera. Well, he’s done it again with Win Win. What McCarthy excels at is illustrating the full complexity and despair of life, but also how human connection is all anyone really needs. Win Win drives this point home through a sweetly told tale of ambiguous morality and how life will always surprise you.

Mike (Paul Giamatti) is a normal suburban husband and father. Unfortunately, his job as a lawyer for the elderly isn’t going so well. Neither is his stint as the wrestling coach for a losing team at the high school. Stressed and feeling at the end of his rope, he involves himself in some dubious business dealings with a senile client, Leo (Burt Young). But that’s when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson, shows up and becomes entangled in Mike and wife Jackie’s (Amy Ryan) life.

While the film is about Mike’s struggles to provide for his family, and feel secure in his life, it’s also about Kyle’s struggle to have a family. His mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), has basically abandoned him, supposedly in rehab somewhere, which is why he shows up to live with Leo. Mike and Jackie decide to take him in because, well, they’re good people and there’s no alternative. Once Mike discovers that he’s actually an incredibly talented wrestler, it only strengthens the bond between them.

Of course, the relationship is only tenuous as they’re all unsure how long this will last and when, or if, Kyle’s mother will ever show up. It’s a curveball for everyone involved, but they actually start to settle. It appears Mike may actually start to win a few matches and Kyle excels as his star wrestler, finally having some sort of consistency in his life.

What’s remarkable about the film is newcomer Shaffer isn’t acting like a normal 17 year-old, he is a normal 17 year-old. The relationships are very real and very brutal, but it’s also very funny.

Most of the humor is provided by previous McCarthy collaborator, The Station Agent star Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend Terry. In complete contrast to Mike, Terry has money but no family. As Mike is surrounded by plenty of love and support, he still feels cut off from the world and alone. Conversely, Terry really is cut off from the world. He only has Mike to turn to during his despair, but turns in an amusing performance as a man-child all too ready to jump into the deep end and tread water.

McCarthy may not create the most philosophically challenged films about human nature, but he presents life in all its complexities, good and bad. Win Win takes that notion and drives it further, creating a structurally more complex film than he has before, injecting more humor but retaining the sweetness that made his previous films a hit. It’s a win-win situation.