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Win Win triumphs with sharp characters

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No one does old better than Paul Giamatti, who's been around for so long now that if he showed up in his next film playing a grandfather, you probably wouldn't think much of it. Except that he's only 43. Considering that he was playing frumpy old television executives more than 12 years ago (in both The Truman Show and Private Parts)—and was more than convincing as John Adams in the recent HBO miniseries about the second president—Giamatti has about as great a range as anyone on screen today.

Giamatti is hardly asked to stretch in the terrific Win Win, in which he plays Mike Flaherty, a 40-something suburban attorney with a wife, two young daughters, and a part-time job coaching high school wrestling. It's a good life but a stressful one: His tiny law practice is struggling, money is tight, and he's prone to small panic attacks. More than once we watch as Mike exits a convenience store with cigarettes, smokes one in the alley, and tosses the pack in a dumpster. This is Giamatti in his comfort zone, and he is very good.

And Win Win is a charming small film, a family drama whose success is as much the result of wonderful performances by stalwarts Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and Bobby Cannavale as it is the stunning debut of 18-year-old Alex Shaffer. It is also one of the most refreshingly authentic high school-centric films to come along in ages, full of kids who actually look and speak like the awkward adolescents they are. And though it does so with great subtlety, Win Win may also be the best sports movie to come along this decade, in much the same way that Jerry Maguire was a great sports film wrapped around a romantic comedy. So yes, Win Win has a lot going for it.

Summoning the eye of the tiger.
  • Summoning the eye of the tiger.

This can no longer be considered a surprise from writer and director Thomas McCarthy, who also helmed The Station Agent and The Visitor, two small gems from the last decade. Win Win makes him three-for-three and succeeds in much the same way as his previous efforts, with a moving human interest story backed by smart dialogue and limited melodrama. The characters must make tough choices, sometimes at great risk to their families, but never do those choices seem out of character.

At its heart is Kyle (Shaffer), a quiet, troubled 16-year-old who abruptly enters the lives of Mike and Jackie (Ryan). The circumstances are difficult to explain without giving away too much of the plot, but Kyle has essentially run away from his junkie mother to find his dementia-ridden grandfather Leo (Burt Young), who doesn't even realize he has a grandson. Since Mike is both Leo's attorney and legal guardian, Kyle ends up bunking down with Mike and Jackie for what starts as a few days and becomes a few months. They can't exactly afford to take on a third child, but this is a kid who is in desperate need of a responsible adult in his life.

In lesser films, this is where the orphan would rebel, start hanging with the wrong crowd, and end up in jail or expelled from school. To McCarthy's great credit, none of that happens here. Though the lanky, blond-haired Kyle speaks in a monotone and gives one or two-word answers to most questions (what teenager doesn't?), there is visible relief in his eyes as he slowly becomes acclimated to family life. It also turns out he can wrestle, a fact that slowly emerges in some of the film's best scenes. After Kyle impresses his coaches and teammates during his first practice, Mike asks him just how good he really is. "Pretty good," says Kyle, in typical humble fashion.

It turns out Shaffer actually won a high school state wrestling championship last year, which explains why he got his first-ever role in this film. But it doesn't explain the depth of his performance or his ability to say so much with so little dialogue. It won't win him an Oscar, but his ability to play off seasoned pros like Giamatti and Ryan with such aplomb should be enough to earn him a second shot in the acting business.

Win Win isn't perfect. It falters a bit in the third act as 90 minutes of complications are tidied up in about two scenes, which many will find a bit too saccharine. But by that point McCarthy has built his characters to where we're essentially cheerleaders. At the very least he has created a family unit where a simple "We love you" feels gut-wrenching. And that's a hard thing to earn.

Win Win continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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