Win Win (2011): Tom McCarthy’s Feature, Starring Paul Gimatti

The third feature of the able actor and filmmaker Tom McCarthy, “Win Win,” is very much a movie of the times, steeped in the dread and anxiousness of the great recession, and suggestive of a quiet desperation and irrational panic.

That’s the premise of the original story developed by McCarthy and the writer Joe Tibini. The story concerns the melancholy and comic consequences that swirl about one such professional and personal transgression. The new work debuted in the premiere section at Sundance. The film is more relaxed and less strident than “The Visitor,” McCarthy’s previous film.  His impressive debut was the 2003 Sundance competition title “The Station Agent,” which won the Jury Screenplay Award.

A gifted character actor who’s worked in a range of big studio productions (like “The Lovely Bones“), series television (the groundbreaking “The Wire”) and some foreign oddities (like Lukas Moodysson’s “Mammoth”), McCarthy has a great affinity and sense of purpose about actors and how to guide and shape a divergent emotional range and open manner of performance.

It is the constant in all of his films, from the freewheeling and expressive work of Bobby Cannavale and Peter Dinklage in “Station Agent” to the more measured and somber turns of Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in “The Visitor.”

In “Win Win,” the fantastic Paul Giamatti anchors the movie as a soulful and complicated Everyman. The movie’s off-kilter tone is established right at the start, in a conversation between Giamatti’s wife, Jackie, terrifically played by Amy Ryan and their young daughter, Abby (Clare Foley). The girl climbs into bed with her mother and they have the following exchange:

“Where’s daddy?”

“He’s running.”

“From what?”

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a suburban New Jersey father of two daughters whose life is a bit of a shambles. He’s a lawyer who operates a practice with his friend, Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), out of a ramshackle two-flat. He also moonlights as a wrestling coach for the local high school. For Mike, the economic downturn has a chilling blowback. Clients are scarce, the bills mounting (even a call to a past patron turns up nothing). Just as galling, his current wrestling squad is a disaster that has yet to win a match.

It is all loading him down with anguish and fear, a point driven home during a panic attack he suffers during his morning run with his buddy Terry (Cannavale). One day in court, Mike seizes on a quick fix involving a court appointed case he‘s been assigned. Leo (Burt Young) is a wealthy widower suffering from early symptoms of dementia. Mike realizes he could pocket a guaranteed $1,508 a month if he agrees to act as the man’s guardian. Pulling a professional fast one, keeping the details secret from his office assistant and more importantly his wife, he stashes the old man in a local assistant living facility.

The money provides a vital cash flow. His stealth plan begins to unravel when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the man’s grandson, turns up at his house one day seeking sanctuary from his drug addled mother and her abusive boyfriend back home in Ohio. The kid, both wary and impudent, is also intensely vulnerable and questioning of the basic set up. Forced to improvise to safeguard his windfall, Mike has little choice but to shelter Kyle. Jackie is naturally a bit flabbergasted but her own deeply refined motherly instincts take precedence and she agrees.

The movie’s ironic title becomes apparent when Kyle, who asks Mike to practice with the rest of the team one day, reveals himself as a very skilled and ferociously talented wrestler. Again seeing the personal advantages, Mike convinces Kyle to enroll at the school and formally invites him on the team. In his first bout, Kyle easily dispatches a fearsome rival. His example suddenly transforms the ragged fortunes of the team.

Mike’s carefully cultivated new life appears grand, except it’s all built on a house of cards that spectacularly implodes with the delayed appearance of Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey), suddenly armed with her own counsel (Margo Martindale). Now, the man with the veil of secrets must suddenly come to terms with it all.

McCarthy is at his best as a writer and handler of actors. The comedy is sharp and observational, captured in the superb timing and impressive work of his actors. The high school and wrestling material is also fluently incorporated into the larger story. Shaffer is actually a star wrestler in his own right, and he certainly brings an authenticity and fearlessness to the part that makes up for his lack of technical training as an actor. The scrawny, hilarious David Thompson is also fantastic as Kyle’s best friend on the wresting team.

“Win Win” is far from perfect. McCarthy is not a visual stylist, and the movie’s cramped and dull style is often grating and lessens some of the movie’s comic punch. The story is also loaded down with a lot of writers’ invention that requires an extraordinary suspension of disbelief (the New Jersey high school association, for instance, would never grant Kyle instant athletic eligibility, for instance). Cannavale’s Terry, as written, is also a bit of a problem, a jealous and possibly vengeful stalker of his ex-wife, that’s a bit problematic and too insistent to the rest of the story.

The movie finally rides on the considerable talents of the three leads. Giamatti’s trademark strangeness and guilt is related both through his vocal inflections, quashed delivery and physical hangdog body expression. Few lead actors are so effective and curiously empathetic, a priceless comedian in a straight man’s body. Ryan is also very fine, especially delineating the transition from own skepticism of Kyle to her unabashed care is heartbreaking. When she tells him, however the case shakes out, “We love you,“ it stings.