Review: Win Win (2011)

From the studio that brought us awards darling Little Miss Sunshine comes an offbeat sports comedy-drama from upcoming writer/director Thomas McCarthy, starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and newcomer Alex Shaffer.

The film centers on Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a disheartened attorney and high school wrestling coach, who stumbles across a star athlete (Shaffer) through some questionable business dealings while trying to support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday, the boy’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything.

McCarthy specialises in light humanism: storytelling that features ordinary people facing their relatable existences with an honest realism and finesse that is all too relatable. Win Win is no exception, and it exemplifies this in an extremely dignified and absorbing way, which should – at last – propel McCarthy into the mainstream.

His self-penned screenplay is full of warmth, fully realised characters, witty scenarios and bag fulls of humour – proving that dramedies needn’t have overblown set-pieces or self-conscious scrutiny to have a long-lasting, appeasing affect on their viewers. Even though the narrative splits off in several directions, Mike’s inner-turmoil and devotion to his family and friends remains at the forefront.

Furthermore, the direction is breezy, never overly infringing upon the drama. It perfectly compliments the material, as it lets the characters’ respective predicaments and the astutely criss-cross narrative breathe in a naturalistic and sensible way.

The triumph, however, lies in the casting. Giamatti delivers a wholly warm, genteel and august performance as the emotionally thwarted Matt, which is complimented extraordinarily by Amy Ryan as his benevolent yet overly vigilant wife Jackie.

Both are shamefully underrated actors, and their flawless paring alone – one that effuses a sense of easiness that’s so rarely captured by on-screen couples – undeniably affirms them as strong-willed and vital actors.

The supporting cast, including a pitch-perfect Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s life-long friend Terry and a note-worthy Lynskey as Kyle’s off the rails mother, hold their own tremendously against the compelling duo.

When it comes to it, though, the real star is newcomer Shaffer. Plucked from obscurity for his naturalistic skill in the wrestling ring, Shaffer delivers a fantastic debut performance as Kyle, owning his scenes in a way that stays with you long after the credits roll. His chemistry with Giamatti glows with warmth and adoration, making their father and son-like dynamic radiate.

Win Win is both a richly engaging and wittily observed human affair that offers consistent offbeat humour, endearing performances and amiable direction.

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