An editor once defined the word “dilemma” for me as “a choice between two undesirable outcomes.”
Life is full of dilemmas. So are movies: Without dilemmas, there wouldn’t be the kind of conflict that films are made from. The difference between movies and life, of course, is that movies inevitably find their way to a desirable outcome, no matter how implausible.
Which is why I like the films of Thomas McCarthy, particularly his newest, “Win Win,” opening Friday (3/18/11). In the world of McCarthy’s films (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”), people confront hard decisions, make choices – right or wrong – and are forced to deal with the consequences of the wrong ones. Consequences are real in McCarthy’s films – unlike most other movies, where remorse and regret are words that have been removed from the vocabulary.
Yet McCarthy has a way of making even the most bittersweet moments full of humanity and humor. “Win Win” is about a guy who makes a bad decision, then has to live with it when things get crazy: “I didn’t think it would get so complicated,” he says by way of explanation.
His name is Mike Flaherty and, as played by Paul Giamatti, he’s a likable, relatively happy guy practicing elder law in the suburbs of New Jersey. Not that everything is OK: His practice isn’t bringing in much money, the furnace in the building he rents for his office is in its death throes – and the high-school wrestling team he coaches is having a dismal season.
A solution – in the form of an elderly client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) – presents itself. Leo is in the early stages of dementia but his estranged daughter, who he hasn’t seen in 20 years and seems to be living in Ohio, cannot be located.
So rather than let Leo become a ward of the state, Mike has himself named as Leo’s guardian, because the position pays enough to help Mike make ends meet. But, after assuring the judge that he’s ready to assume the responsibilities that being a guardian entails (including helping Leo stay in his own house), Mike then moves Leo into an assisted-living facility instead.
Which isn’t a problem until Leo’s grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up on the doorstep of Leo’s house. Leo’s never met him – and Kyle has run away from Ohio because his mother has a drug problem, as well as an abusive boyfriend.
At a loss, Mike and his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), agree to take Kyle in, temporarily. But eventually, though Jackie is initially scared of the tattooed, cigarette-smoking Kyle, they decide they can’t just send him back. So Kyle joins the Flaherty family – and, one night, accompanies Mike to wrestling practice.
When he asks if he can wrestle a little, Mike agrees – only to discover that Kyle is, in fact, a championship-caliber high-school wrestler. He enrolls Kyle in school, then begins to reap the benefits of Kyle’s presence and his influence on the other wrestlers. Things seem idyllic – Mike is having his cake and eating it too – until Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up.
Yet there are no easy villains – or heroes – in McCarthy’s delightful and surprising film. He finds laughs in unexpected places, many of them coming from the interplay between Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale as his best friend. But there’s also heartfelt humor between the delightfully deadpan Shaffer (a real-life high-school wrestling champion) and the wonderfully abrupt Ryan, who brings terrific vitality and scrappiness to the role of this mother hen.
There aren’t any easy answers to the problems these characters have; that’s what makes McCarthy’s writing so enjoyable. He creates a believable world of extremely human people, making mistakes even while trying to do the right thing. His camera always seems to be in the right place to capture that extra bit of comic juice (including a wonderful montage of Mike’s wrestling team losing its matches that begins with a shot of the gym ceiling, where the home team has hung a banner that says, “If you can read this, you’re pinned!”).
Giamatti carries the film on his shoulders with a performance that is as emotionally wise as anything he’s done, while playing a character that’s entirely new to him: a likable, relatively calm and untortured guy. The film revolves around his Mike Flaherty and Giamatti is more than equal to the task.
“Win Win” is a delight, a movie that’s smart and emotionally honest about juggling the problems life sends you. It’s already at the top of my list as one of the year’s best.