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Movie Review: What we all need – ‘Win Win’

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer star in Win Win.

I would think it would be unpleasant to be Paul Giamatti. To me, he’s a sort of male version of Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer, a character played by Rachel Dratch who ruins everyone’s fun by pointing out how awful her life is. Her every complaint is followed by a sad trombone. And when I see Paul Giamatti and I hear, “Wuh, waaannh.” That can’t be good for his self-esteem, all those acting awards notwithstanding.

For the last decade, ever since his break out role in American Splendor as the depressive cartoonist Harvey Pekar, Giamatti has been type cast as a schlub. With his pot-belly, hound-dog eyes and a receding curly brown hairline, he is almost the perfect embodiment of what Americans see as a loser: pudgy, sad and helplessly imperfect. Even when he’s playing someone who is the opposite of a schlub, such as John Adams in the eponymous HBO miniseries, the character ends up seeming a little awkward, a little curmudgeonly, and well, a little schlubby.

In Win Win, Tom McCarthy uses Giamatti’s droopy eyes and deep sighs as well as anyone has since Alexander Payne did in Sideways. Giamatti plays Mike, a lawyer whose practice is drying up and who, in order to earn some extra money, unethically pulls some strings to become the legal guardian of a wealthy client in the early stages of dementia (Burt Young).

When the old man’s teenaged grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives, complications ensue not just because of Mike’s ethical lapse but also because Kyle is an amazingly gifted wrestler and Mike coaches a terrible wrestling team. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take in Kyle, and Kyle’s athletic skill is so exciting, Mike’s best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) insists that he be allowed to help coach the team. As they are all headed to a moment of success – a desperately needed win for Mike, Terry and Kyle – Kyle’s mother arrives and tries to ruin Mike’s carefully, precariously laid plans.

Giamatti is an old hat in the high-brow indie films like the ones McCarthy makes, and his acting is effortless, perfect, if probably a little more sad than it needs to be. I’d like to see him smile once in a while – and no, a smirk doesn’t count.

Luckily, Ryan smiles, and she is also a fiercely, hilariously protective mother, first of her daughters and then of Kyle. While she’s given some good moments, she’s woefully underused, while Bobby Cannavale, playing the same dopey stud that he always plays (and plays so well), is a bit overused.

As Kyle, Schaffer is a bit outclassed; many of his lines are delivered flawlessly in a teenager’s dull monotone, but when he needs to emote in some major scenes, he doesn’t quite succeed, belying the fact that he’s an amateur. McCarthy found him in an open casting call, and Win Win is Schaffer’s first acting job.

While not as wrenching and beautiful as McCarthy’s last film, The Visitor, or as revelatory as his first, The Station Agent,Win Win is still a pleasure. While he works without studio money, McCarthy is still creating populist entertainment, but in that sort of world, rarely does anyone write and direct with the emotional authenticity that McCarthy does. The need for a win is something that we all desire in this rather dreary world, and McCarthy gives it to us.



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Posted by on Mar 31, 2011. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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