Movie Review: “Win Win”

“It’s a win-win situation,” we hear people say, often to assure us that something they’re doing that’s counter to your interests is actually just as much to your advantage as theirs.

That’s what Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) tells himself when he signs himself up to be a new client’s legal guardian. He’s a struggling lawyer in rural New Jersey, a good guy who has also taken on the thankless job of coaching the high school wrestling team. The old man (Burt Young) forgets things and needs to be in a group home. The state thinks so. And since there are no living relatives Mike can track down, Mike takes on the paid job of looking after the man’s life and his affairs.

Mike gets paid, the old man gets to stay in his home, “Win Win.” Only Mike doesn’t let him stay in his house. He puts him in a retirement home — out of sight, out of mind. Sure, he lied to the judge and his wife (Amy Ryan). But they need the money, and at least he’ll look in on the client, right? The judge doesn’t need to know.

“Win Win” is about what happens after this unethical act by an essentially moral man. It’s the most entertaining and accessible film from the director of perfectly accessible and entertaining “The Visitor,” Thomas McCarthy. So that’s saying something.

Giamatti is well cast as a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The office building he shares with an accountant (Jeffrey Tambor) needs a new heating system. He has a young child and a toddler at home and a shrinking client base.

When he heads out jogging, his kid asks “Where’s dad?” Running, the wife says. “From what?”

But every night Mike has a few hours escape, trying to turn the Pioneers of New Providence High into winners. That’s an uphill struggle, too. Most of the kids are shrinking violets on the mat.

Mike’s two worlds collide in the person of Kyle, played by first-time actor Alex Shaffer in a performance of unaffected brilliance. He’s the troubled teenage grandson of Mike’s client. If Mike doesn’t want the judge to find out the old man has relatives, he has to take the boy in.  Doing the right thing by Kyle may pay dividends.  The kid’s a wrestler. But this being a Tom McCarthy movie, things are a more complicated than that.

The hang-dog Giamatti has no difficulty in suggesting Mike’s ever widening circle of dilemmas and the way they threaten to crush him. Ryan, of “Gone Baby Gone,” nicely complements his performance as a supportive, bemused no nonsense spouse. She’s the common sense one. Yeah, they can’t turn a teenager out into the street, even a stranger. But she’s locking her door.

“I’m not taking any chances, with Eminem down there,” she frets.

Bobby Cannavale juices up the wrestling half of the story, playing Mike’s newly-divorced pal who eggs him on as they both live vicariously through this new kid who is the athlete neither of them ever were.

“Kid’s got MAN STRENGTH, Dude!”

The story takes a lot of predictable turns, but the players — including the wrestling team — ground it all in a reality that never lets you think “formula.” The wrestling scenes are positively giddy, the melodramatic moments never less than compelling.

With “Win Win,” McCarthy has found his emotional sweet spot, a gentle and complex story to set it in and the perfect title for it.

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Running time: 1:46

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