After his first two films, 2003's The Station Agent and 2007's The Visitor, writer-director Tom McCarthy laid claim to being that most unfashionable of entities on the American indie circuit: a dyed-in-the-wool humanist.
Post-modern irony, pop-culture referencing, and other hipster trappings of his peers are as conspicuously absent in McCarthy's movies as CGI effects. McCarthy prefers actor-driven affairs (Richard Jenkins received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his moving portrayal of an emotionally stifled college professor in The Visitor) and believes that every one of his characters has their reasons. Blacks and whites are disavowed in favor of more neutral shades of gray.
McCarthy's third feature, Win Win, is as unfashionably low-concept as his previous movies, and just as splendidly acted and full of wonderfully lifelike moments. Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a struggling New Jersey lawyer who coaches high school wrestling to help make ends meet. He's got a wife (Amy Ryan), two young daughters, and a growing mountain of debt. Against his better judgment, Mike appoints himself caregiver of a new client, Leo Polar (Burt Young), who's suffering from dementia. The position comes with a monthly stipend of $1,500, which is all Mike really cares about.
When Leo's teenage grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) unexpectedly shows up and turns out to be a wrestling prodigy (surprise!), Mike takes the kid under his wing. In no time, Mike enrolls Kyle in school and even moves him into his house, where he quickly becomes part of the family. Complications ensue when Kyle's addict mom (Melanie Lynskey) blows into town fresh from rehab, determined to get her hands on Leo's money. After discovering Mike's caregiver arrangement, she hires a lawyer (Margo Martindale), threatening to blow the lid off his scheme.
The Blind Side parallels are as unmistakable as they are ultimately meaningless: This is a tougher, grittier, and less sanctimonious do-gooder fable in every way. But it's also a marginally slicker work than either of McCarthy's other films.
Win Win is McCarthy's first movie that has a shot at crossing over, but its R rating (Kyle's wrestling mantra is "Whatever the fuck it takes") will probably prevent the film from reaching the teen demographic it would otherwise have a chance of hitting. Too bad.
Giamatti and Ryan are both fantastic (you actually believe they're a married couple), but it's first-time actor Shaffer who runs away with the movie. His laidback stoner vibe and Harpo Marx hairdo recall Sean Penn's iconic Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (if Spicoli had been a wrestler instead of a surfer). It's a terrifically engaging performance in an immensely winning film.