Thursday, October 13, 2011
Another fine movie ensemble
By Edward Copeland
Sometimes a film's cast proves so damn good and likable and the underlying story interesting enough that you feel like giving the movie a pass even though it doesn't give you anything to rave about. Somehow, even when deep down you know the film doesn't deserve much praise, you feel that picking apart its weaknesses would be akin to kicking a puppy. Such is the case with writer-director Tom McCarthy's third film Win Win.
McCarthy, who previously made the overrated film The Station Agent and The Visitor with its great Oscar-nominated performance by Richard Jenkins, and who himself played the prevaricating reporting on the final season of The Wire, co-wrote the story for Win Win with Joe Tiboni. Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a struggling practice who also coaches a high school wrestling team part-time. One of his clients happens to be a fairly well off man named Leo (Burt Young) who has slipped into dementia in his later years and is estranged from his only daughter, his only living family.
The hearing is to decide whether the state should become his guardian, which would mean placing him in a nursing home. Mike, in theory, is only there to represent Leo's desire to stay in his own home, even though that's unlikely to be the ruling. Flaherty discovers that a guardian for Leo would receive a monthly stipend of $1,500 and at the last minute volunteers to be his guardian, saying that way Leo would be able to stay in his own home. Flaherty actually has no intention of doing such a thing, placing Leo in a nursing facility anyway and telling him that the judge ruled that is where he must stay, while Mike and his supremely odd pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale) plot what to do with the accumulated money they can raise off the old man.
You're off to a good start with a cast that features Giamatti, Young and Cannavale, but we're also rewarded by having Amy Ryan (fast becoming a national treasure) as Flaherty's no-nonsense wife Jackie. I think it took me a long time to recognize Ryan's greatness because I've yet to see her in two roles that seem alike whether it be Officer Beatrice Russell on The Wire, her Oscar-nominated turn as the drugged-out mom with the kidnapped daughter in Gone Baby Gone or last year's underrated Jack Goes Boating.
We aren't done with the acting riches yet — we've got Jeffrey Tambor as Flaherty's assistant wrestling coach, Melanie Lynskey as Young's estranged daughter who comes sniffing around when she thinks that there is money to be gained and even a brief appearance by recent Emmy winner Margo Martindale. Interestingly enough, with this big and strong an ensemble, the second most important part next to Giamatti's goes to a teen who has never acted before.
Alex Shaffer portrays Kyle, Leo's teenage grandson who runs away from his Ohio home with his mother (Lynskey) hoping to live with the grandfather he's never met. Instead, the Flahertys end up taking him in and Kyle also turns out to be a wrestling prodigy (in real life as well as the film). Even though what Mike does initially isn't ethical, he isn't a bad man. Win Win, for the most part, doesn't have heroes or villains, though Lynskey's Cindy doesn't get portrayed in the most positive of lights.
The problem with Win Win is that once it's over, even though it was watchable and the actors performed admirably or better, for the life of me I couldn't tell you what it is. It skews closest to the realm of comedy, not that I laughed that much. It never really bored me yet at no point did I feel invested in the characters' fates.
Ryan is excellent, Cannavale has some great screwy moments and for his first time acting, young Shaffer comes off pretty well. Giamatti, as nearly always, gives a good performance but I never forgot that I was watching Paul Giamatti. I wouldn't have minded more Tambor.
Win Win turns out to be a puzzlement. I imagine that years from now I'll flip past it on a TV channel, watch for a few minutes and then try to remember if I've seen the film before.