We’ve seen “The Bad News Bears” formula trotted out so many times but never quite like “Win Win.” Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) gives us all the cliches from the down-on-his-luck coach to the troubled-but-talented star — but buries them deep in the background of a touching and relevant story of a family man struggling to balance his books and his ethics amidst our current recession. It’s sort of “The Bad Financial News Bears” and it is outstanding.
Paul Giamatti stars, in one of his best performances in years, as Mike, a small town New Jersey lawyer whose meager earnings from his almost exclusively elderly clientele aren’t enough to keep his practice afloat. The bills are piling up; Mike can’t afford to fix the office boiler that clangs all day long and keep food on the table for his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and 2 kids. With insolvency a real possibility, Mike compromises his morals. When he learns that the estate of one of his senile clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), pays its guardian $1500 bucks a month, he has the court assign him Leo’s guardian, stashes him in a nursing home against his wishes, and pockets the $1500 all for himself.
There’s just one problem: Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who’s been sent by his deadbeat mom to live with his grandfather and whose surprise appearance threatens to expose Mike’s entire scheme. While he tries to ship Kyle back to his mother, though, Mike discovers something: his new charge is a former champion high school wrestler, so good he might be able to prop up the local high school wrestling team, which Mike just happens to coach.
As you can see, the plot is complicated and littered with coincidence. But McCarthy is less concerned with the story than its moral implications for his characters, who are uniformly fascinating. McCarthy’s story is small — we’re talking about a whole lot to do about a couple thousands dollars — but its stakes are huge. And so are the questions it raises: what should a man be willing to do to support his family? How should we care for our society’s elderly? How do we determine who is the most qualified parent for a troubled child? But rather than than drown us in speeches about what’s right and wrong, McCarthy’s witty, nuanced screenplay, written with his friend and New Jersey lawyer Joe Tiboni, reveals all of the answers through the frequently difficult choices his characters make.
“Win Win” is one of those movies about good people with bad luck who make worse decisions. When their luck begins to improve, we cheer; when their worse decisions come back to bite them on their ass, we care. Giamatti and Ryan are one of the most believable married couples I’ve seen onscreen in a while, and I was particularly impressed by the subdued but utterly believable performance of Shaffer, a non-professional actor and former New Jersey state wrestling champion, as lost soul and wrestling phenom Kyle. His growth under Mike’s coaching, and the team’s growth under Kyle’s influence, has some fun with inspirational sports team cliches without completely abandoning the things we love about the genre either.
“Win Win” isn’t the most visually stimulating 90 minutes you could spend at arthouses this spring, but it might just be the most emotionally stimulating. The characters are so rich and their bland New Jersey world is so real, that I found myself completely caught up in their struggles and successes. As Mike’s busted boiler kept clanging away — as the pressure literally rises before our eyes — I found myself leaning foward in my chair, gripping my armrests in a way I don’t do often in movies. It was like I was watching a spy thriller, not a movie about a crummy, ethically-challenged lawyer from New Jersey. Pretty good for a “Bad News Bears”-style inspirational sports film.