Tom McCarthy feels a special sympathy toward the people who live out on the fringes. In his first film, The Station Agent, he focused his lens on a lonely widow, a Puerto Rican immigrant and a dwarf who inherited a train station. On paper it sounds like the kind of indie pap that gives birth to toneless quirk such as Eagle vs. Shark, but in McCarthy's hands it becomes an equally funny and bitter portrayal of living life in permanent exile.
Building on that theme was The Visitor, one of my favorite movies and ends on final shot so pointed in it's anger and longing I tear up thinking about it. So where does McCarthy go after making something as simultaneously bleak and hopeful as The Visitor? He does what many great directors do and has crafted a palette cleansing comedy.
All the great directors do it. Soderbergh has had his Ocean's 11 franchise in between films like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. Spielberg has Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. The Coen Brothers are the most famous for it, making their more direct comedies after terribly bleak films (Fargo/The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men/Burn After Reading). I was convinced of McCarthy's greatness long before I settled Win Win into my DVD player, but it's good to see that he's following in an excellent tradition with it.
Win Win is the most conventional movie that he's made in plot only. The conventions stem mostly from the middle-class surroundings that hang precipitously over a sudden decline that can come at any moment. To that end, what better person is set to encapsulate that kind of fear and protectiveness than Paul Giamatti? As Mike Flaherty, struggling lawyer and flailing wrestling coach tending to a newly born daughter, he continues to portray the kind of unique strength found in good people utilizing their situations to the best ends, even if it's not the best means.
He knows not to imbue Mike with a flop-sweat or nervous twitching. Giamatti does something difficult here (and in most of his films if you want to be specific) by showing how quickly a man's demeanor changes with a dulling of the eyes, or a steady flex of muscle across the cheek. He never seems to be "acting" in his movies any more than we're "acting" in real life. It's not a series of dramatic confrontations, just quiet pep-talks that no one hears even though you can see the effects if you just watch long enough. Once again, he delivers a hell of a performance.
So Mike is trying to figure out how to keep his family in clothes and his business from going under when he finds out how to manipulate the legal system and put an elderly charge in his care (played by Burt Young, shades of Rocky still present in his tough frame). Here's a good man doing the wrong thing for good ends, but only presents more confusion when Kyle (Bobby Cannavale) shows up bruised, casually dropping information about his drug-addled mother.
Kyle, much like Doug in Cold Weather (another one of my favorite movies this year), is someone I feel an instinctive empathy for. In another of this films' wonderfully understated performances, Alex Shaffer does something equally difficult as Giamatti, giving us another quiet, loner kid who hasn't been beaten down and takes a funny pride in being a great wrestler. He's direct, but caring and not succumbing to the kind of irony we've come to expect from kids in movies these days.
As an audience we're all waiting for the shoe to drop on Mike's schemes, noble as they may be, but that's not the point of this movie. In The Station Agent McCarthy touched on a sort of American malaise that became too powerful for some to overcome, in The Visitor he showed the effects of 9/11 on a very personal level without being too direct and in Win Win he comments directly on our current economic situation. The wonder of his films is that he's able to express the frustrations of living in these times without coming off as preachy or, worse, condescending.
There's not a single character that fails to elicit some kind of empathy in McCarthy's hands. Even when Kyle's mother finally resurfaces there's a certain tragedy to her plight that McCarthy does not sensationalize, and the scant five minutes that her lawyer (played by the magnificent Margo Martindale) is onscreen tells us all we need to know about how she feels toward her client. Even Jeffrey Tambor, an actor I love but is usually forced to play one note, gets his own special corner as Mike's best friend (Bobby Cannavale, of The Station Agent) tries to muscle in as an assistant coach. The looks of exasperation between Giamatti and Tambor alone are worth the price of a rental.
This is a superbly crafted entertainment. Most of the notes I made were of quietly funny moments dealing with strangely executed motivational speeches ("I just do whatever the fuck it takes") and hilariously pointed observations ("I don't think we can teach him anything.") McCarthy's sense of timing is never off and when saddled with his unflaggable sense of empathy just explodes with every ounce of good feeling from the script and performers.
Win Win has been taken down a peg or two for not being as ambitious as his other films but that is terribly misguided. Streamlined plotting aside, making a movie this overwhelmingly wholesome with belly laughs aplenty is no easy task. Loneliness may be his trade but, at least for now, McCarthy proves that it's easier to fight back than anyone ever realizes.