its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” has drawn comparisons to “The Blind Side,” and for good reason. But while the films are thematically similar in a lot of ways, “Win Win” is a much stronger piece of filmmaking than the Oscar-nominated drama – one that doesn’t pander to the audience or depend on hot-button topics to drive the story. Instead, it’s just a really well made dramedy that benefits from a funny and touching script by McCarthy and one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Call it feel-good entertainment if you must, because “Win Win” is a genuinely heartwarming film.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey-based attorney who midnights as a high school wrestling coach. With his law practice in the dumps and his family’s livelihood in danger, Mike agrees to assume guardianship of an Alzheimer’s client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young), not out of the goodness of his heart, but because he can move him into an assisted living facility and collect the monthly stipend without doing any work. A wrench is thrown into Mike’s plans, however, when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), makes an impromptu trip from Ohio to pay a visit. With his mother (Melanie Lynskey) in a drug clinic and no one else to take care of him, Paul and his wife (Amy Ryan) agree to take the troubled teen into their home. But when Mike learns that Kyle has a natural talent for wrestling, he enrolls him at the local school so he can join the team, only for his mother to arrive in town threatening to reveal Mike’s scheme and ruin Kyle’s promising future.
As you might expect from a movie that stars the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, the performances are top-notch. Their onscreen relationship is so natural that it doesn’t even feel like they’re acting, and it’s an especially good role for Giamatti, who always thrives as the unlucky schlub trying to catch a break. Newcomer Alex Shaffer – a real-life state wrestling champion who had to quit the sport due to a recurring back injury – may play his character with the kind of blunt, matter-of-factness that is common in first-time actors, but it’s exactly what the role requires, and he actually handles the bigger, more emotional scenes surprisingly well. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor providing most of the laughs – particularly the former, whose scenes alongside Giamatti are undoubtedly the highlight of the film.
Though there are certainly elements of an underdog sports drama on display here, “Win Win” is predominantly about the idea of family and how you can find it in the unlikeliest of places. McCarthy has explored a similar theme of people coming from very different worlds to form an unlikely family unit before (not only in directorial efforts like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” but also Pixar’s “Up,” which he co-wrote), but this is probably his most crowd-pleasing movie to date. And thanks to an incredible ensemble cast and a script that smartly balances drama and comedy without getting overly preachy, it’s also his best. McCarthy may not turn up on anyone’s radar when it comes to great American directors, but with the leaps and bounds that he’s made with each successive film, “Win Win” only serves to remind us that he probably should be.