Cast: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young
Director: Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is the sort of well-meaning, well-considered indie movie with crisp dialogue and perfectly modulated performances that no one will ever watch twice. Not even the projectionists, who are in the break room trading ideas on how to take shelter. That said, the one single viewing – the only one that you will ever want or need – should be a modest delight.
The title itself is the catch phrase of situational ethics. More often than not, the phrase serves as a mental and moral lubricant. When fingertipping through an ethical thornbush, the benefits to each side outweigh the disadvantages of conventional morality. It might be the right thing to do, given the situation, but it’s not something you’d brag to your mother about doing.
Left in the everyday world of small moral crises, win-win becomes a lifestyle for getting by. How someone fixes a boiler or cuts down a tree has deeper moral implications. The formula is flavored by the performance of Paul Giamatti, whose bald head and earnest style attract our affection for a friendly neighbor, even as he does slightly crooked things.
These moral issues circumnavigate a small town life of courtrooms and wrestling. As a New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to make ends meet, Giamatti draws a rich client (Burt Young) in the early stages of dementia. Needing the money, he volunteers to serve as the stranger’s guardian, shuffling grandpa to a nursing home against his wishes. Everything is going perfectly diabolically when the man’s grandson (Alex Shaffer) – a champion high school wrestler – shows up on the doorstep, looking for a place to live. You know how this goes. It’s the cinematic law of conservation of generosity. Every shady lawyer has a saint of a wife. (Amy Ryan, doyenne of the indie movie that no one will ever watch twice).
McCarthy’s last film – the unduly celebrated The Visitor – indulges in that precious downer vibe that sours too many indies. Win Win reverses this formula and stays remarkably upbeat (too upbeat at times – with a soft landing for an ending). It finds honest rewards from messy situations, without shortchanging the personal awakenings or moral seriousness.
If it sounds like a short story, that description isn’t far off. Films of such minute focus – like those of fellow traveler Nicole Holofcener – can feel like they are failing to use all that cinema offers. When done right, as here, such small details aren’t small. They are the finishing touches on an overwhelming grasp of life.