Win Win is a winning combination

By Brendan Collett, Scene & Heard Editor
On April 12, 2011

The uplifting sports movie has long been a go-to for Hollywood producers looking for an easy, pre-packaged film that is sure to yield decent box office returns.

From the 1915 Charlie Chaplin silent film "The Champion" to last year‘s Academy Award-winning "The Fighter," filmmakers have been using the formulaic sports flick for nearly a century.

And while director Thomas McCarthy's "Win Win" technically qualifies as a "sports movie" and relies on many of the clichs associated with them, the film breaks some of the genre's biggest faults to create a very satisfying experience.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a middle-aged father of two who is struggling to stay afloat in the less-than-glamorous professions of elder care law and coaching a high school wrestling team. Disheartened and nearing financial collapse, he is quick to take up the ethically questionable opportunity to make some extra money by becoming the legal guardian of kooky client Leo Poplar (Burt Young), who has been declared legally incapacitated by the state due to his onset of dementia.

Little does he know that he and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) will also end up caring for Poplar's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) when he shows up unannounced on Leo's doorstep after leaving his uncaring and drug-addled mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey).

At first glance, it may seem like less of a sports movie and more of a hardline drama, but in the end it is wrestling that serves as the emotional impetus for the plot in "Win Win." Kyle's extreme wrestling talent drives Flaherty to reexamine his life and the questionable choices he's made.

It's easy for most sports movies to rely too much on the natural emotions associated with competitive sports instead of quality character development brought on by events that happen off the field or out of the ring. Great sports movies, like the "Rocky" series, Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" or the aforementioned "The Fighter," focus on the characters' personal struggles and histories that may manifest in their respective sports, but are not solely created there.

"Win Win" follows in the same vein as these greats by creating fantastic characters who give the viewer a front row seat at the intersection of two vastly different families. Casting was spot-on as the actors and actresses embodied their characters perfectly.

Paul Giamatti is no stranger to disheartened, middle-aged characters, having played Miles in the Academy Award-winning "Sideways" in 2004. He seems right in his element in "Win Win," making the viewer feel sorry for the frustrated Flaherty, who seems to be lacking motivation in his daily mid-life grind.

Bobby Cannavale plays Flaherty's good friend Terry Delfino who offers another cross-section of middle-aged America. Delfino has obviously achieved financial success, but emotionally he is as empty as Flaherty's wallet. After his marriage falls apart, Delfino is quick to associate himself with the excitement of Kyle, who shows so much promise after coming from so little.

While most of the characters are entertaining yet clichd, Alex Shaffer's Kyle is as original as they come. From the very moment he appears on screen, Kyle appears to be your average teenage delinquent who spends more time smoking cigarettes and stealing cars than working for his future.

But underneath the tattooed, quiet exterior, Shaffer brings warmth to Kyle that makes the viewer connect with the character immediately. By the time the credits role, the viewer has become so attached with Kyle they will wish he were part of their family.

Even the techniques most overused in sports dramas, like the hyperbolic and melodramatic "you can do it" speech, are still stirring due to excellent acting and character development.

"Win Win" does have some dramatic moments and heavy thematic elements, but it keeps itself from falling over into the realm of more serious sports dramas such as "The Wrestler." The whole cast, from Flaherty's daughter Abby (Clare Foley) to his assistant wrestling coach Stephen Vigman (Jeffery Tambor), is able to inject a great deal of humor into what might otherwise be a less-than-amusing script.

Don't be fooled by the genre of "Win Win." In a superficial way, it would be easy to write it off as another sports drama.

But beneath the familiar surface, director and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy has created a winning combination of tried-and-true elements with fresh ideas and entertaining characters that makes for a first in class film.

"Win Win" is rated R for language. Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Running Time: 106 minutes.

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