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movie review

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win"

The opening sequence is wonderfully telling. Jogging in the morning, feeling righteous, labouring at the peak of his capacity, a middle-aged man gets breezily passed by a pair of far-more-skilled runners.

That little tableau speaks volumes about Mike Flaherty, whose journey through life has always been a diminished case of maximum effort yielding modest accomplishment. At work in his small law practice, at home in his stale but solid marriage, he's plodded the via media and reaped its middling rewards - neither rich nor poor, neither unintelligent nor brilliant, not unhappy yet hardly joyous.

The Mikes of the world are abundant in fact but, not being dramatic types, they're rare in fiction. So it's a pleasure to see him in Win Win, and who better to portray the guy than Paul Giamatti?

Seldom do character actors become leading men, yet Giamatti has the knack of playing up or down, of finding the common frailties in uncommon men (Harvey Pekar, John Adams, Barney Panofsky) or of reversing the process to locate the uniqueness in everyday schmoes (his Miles in Sideways). This time out, he splits the difference and, consequently, gives the middle of the road an interesting sheen, affording us a rooting interest in Mike's minor vices no less than his tiny virtues.

The script helps, at least early on. It's refreshing to see a lawyer unshackled from the usual cinematic stereotypes. Plugging along in his New Jersey hometown, Mike is just another day worker, sharing his small office with an accountant, fretting about the faulty boiler and blocked toilet, simply making ends meet.

But now, in the economic downturn, the ends are drifting apart and his practice is in jeopardy. As a result, an essentially honest fellow makes a dishonest decision, misleading the court into appointing him the legal guardian of a long-time client named Leo (Burt Young), an elderly man on the cusp of dementia. The appointment comes with a monthly commission of $1,500, not exactly a windfall yet enough to keep Mike's business afloat. Yes, even his lies and his larceny are modest.

With the plot kick-started, writer-director Thomas McCarthy reverts to the same theme he explored in The Visitor and The Station Agent - the sudden emergence of a makeshift family. Into town comes Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), an apparently troubled teen with a mass of dyed blond hair, a back of freshly inked tattoos, and an addicted mother left behind in a rehab clinic.

Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take the kid in, yet here again the stereotype is neatly avoided. Turns out Kyle isn't the menace you'd expect - rather, he's quietly confident and impressively self-contained. Jackie warms to him immediately and, when she displays her own discreet tattoo, the always watchable Ryan hints intriguingly at a rebellious streak long buried under the weight of adulthood's requisite chores.

What's more, Kyle happens to be a highly talented wrestler and a welcome addition to the sad-sack team that Mike, moonlighting as the high-school coach, has led to countless losing seasons. In other words, cheating Leo and inheriting Kyle is a "win win" situation, at least until the drug-addled mom pops up with her own lawyer in tow, and the situation unravels. Alas, so does the movie.

To this point, we've been treated to a low-key but observant character study, with Mike offering up nice little shocks of recognition - the way, when preoccupied, he half-listens to his chattering wife; or the resigned patience he displays with his divorced and too gregarious friend (Bobby Cannavale); or his genuine wonderment over Kyle's natural athletic gifts ("What's it like to be as good as you are?").

Yet these moments end when the plot thickens and the melodrama mounts. The problem isn't that Mike's life begins to develop rough edges, but that McCarthy feels the need to smooth them all out before the final frame. It's as if an essentially honest director makes his own dishonest decision, grafting on a last act that goes against type and transforms an independent picture into a studio conformist. Win Win is a paragon of truth at a slow jog, but that upbeat sprint to the finish feels like a big cheat.

Win Win

  • Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy
  • Starring Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer and Amy Ryan
  • Classification: 14A

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