Win Win

Year of Release: 2011     Directed by Thomas McCarthy.  Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Clare Foley, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, and Alex Shaffer.

A middle aged man slowly jogs out in the brisk morning air.  The camera zooms in on him, only to reveal two runners come up from behind and easily sprint by him.  The man, Mike Flaherty, (Paul Giamatti) slows up, turns towards the camera, and gives an exasperated sigh.  Just as he was outpaced by other runners, Mike’s life is slipping away as others surpass him.  He does have a loving and supportive family, who helps him, but he is deeply concerned about his ability to care for them.  His law practice can barely cover its own expenses.  He is the coach of a high school wrestling team that has not won a match or even one round of a match in recent memory.

Due to the stress at his jobs, Mike has been having breathing troubles, which alarm his good friend Terry, (Bobby Cannavale) who is in the midst of a nasty divorce, while the two of them are jogging.  Mike has also been postponing necessary tasks, such as replacing the boiler at his office and taking down a rotted tree next to his house.  He refuses to call a plumber to fix the toilet at his office, but he does it himself to save money.  Although Mike is strictly against smoking, he takes occasional furtive smokes to cope with his stress.  Finally, he has not told wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) of their looming financial troubles, because he does not want to alarm her.

Mike’s struggles are humorously reflected in his six-year-old daughter, Abby. (Clare Foley)  Directly after Mike’s jogging, the camera cuts to his sleeping daughter.  She is woken by a thud and gets up to discover her sun-catcher fell of her window and broke.   Her response: “Shit.”  That same response does earn a rebuke from her parents when she utters it at breakfast, when she draws a picture of her father’s team (finally) winning a match and then spills her orange juice all over it.

As a result of his interactions with a client, Mike meets Kyle, (Alex Shaffer) a troubled teenager who came from Ohio to New Jersey to visit his grandfather Leo. (Burt Young)  Since Kyle has no place to live and since Mike has been checking in on Leo while he is in a nursing home, Mike and Jackie allow Kyle to live in their basement.  When Kyle sees Mike coaching the wrestling team, he asks if he can join.  Mike enrolls Kyle in the high school, and it turns out Kyle is an extremely talented wrestler.

It is almost instantly clear that this is not a traditional sports film.  Win Win is much more concerned with the relationships of its characters then the results of a few wrestling matches.  The wrestling take back seat to the main issues concerning the troubled relationship Kyle has with his family and Mike’s attempt to do what is best for everyone.  The climax of the film does not occur during a wrestling match, but during a confrontation among characters concerning the motives for their earlier actions.

While not a perfect role-model, Mike is very likeable character who wants what is best for his family, his clients, and others that he meets.  He is easy to empathize with, and Giamatti plays the role with a heartfelt conviction.  When Mike makes an unethical decision, the viewer can understand his flawed rationale.  If not paying close attention, the viewer may even not realize the full extent of the mistake until later in the film, at which point the viewer will be nearly as shocked as another character.  Even after Mike’s mistake is exposed, one hopes there is still a way for everything to resolve without Mike suffering too badly for his sins.

However, actions have consequences, which are inescapable.  Swearing in front of one’s children will probably lead to children who swear.  A parent who is a drug addict will probably have a child who develops behavioral issues.  And Mike’s mistake, which some people in his situation might do without thinking, ultimately leads to much more trouble than he imagined.

Shortly after Mike meets Kyle, it seems that he has crafted a win-win scenario.  He is earning extra money to make ends meet, and he is helping a lonely teenager who helps his high school wrestling team.  Both Mike and Kyle have seemingly won.  However, this situation provides only temporary relief from more pressing problems, which emerge along with the appearance of another character whose earlier absence caused many of the problems.

In many ways, the film does not want a win-win solution, but rather a win-win-win-win solution.  The obvious wins are for Mike’s law firm and for his wrestling team.  Kyle needs a winning scenario to escape his bleak situation.  Finally, his grandfather’s situation also should be improved.  Early comments exchanged in jest foreshadow the conclusion of the film.  Depending on the character and the circumstances, Win Win may or may not deliver the results that the characters want, but more importantly the film does give the characters what they need.

Content Advisory: Frequent vulgarities, (a few of them from a child) brief profanity, an instance of rear nudity, and themes of family discord.                        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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