In a time when most movies are remakes, reboots or sequels based on known-quantity stories, writer-director Thomas McCarthy makes true originals. Though there’s nothing new under the sun, try to think of some other American film that’s just like his 2003 dramedy The Station Agent or his 2007 immigration-themed drama The Visitor. When you’re done wrestling with that, head on down to your local theater for McCarthy’s latest, Win Win.
McCarthy does have something of an M.O. in the way he invents and fleshes out characters, then has them meet under surprising circumstances. So goes the comedy-drama Win Win, set in suburban New Providence, New Jersey. When we meet lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), he appears to be a born loser: his aging client base is shrinking, his office duplex is giving him $6000 worth of plumping agita, and the wrestling team he coaches (the New Providence High School Pioneers) is logy and uninspired.
Everything changes when Mike sees an opportunity to bring in some extra scratch by becoming the legal guardian of one of his clients, an elderly and mentally deteriorating man named Leo Poplar (Burt Young). This way, Mike can move Leo into a nice rest home that can shoulder the responsibility for daily care, occasionally check in on him, and collect a cool $1500 a month. Though the breach of ethics is hardly “no foul,” Mike sees it as “no harm,” especially since Leo’s family can’t be bothered to step up.
A curveball arrives in the form of sixteen-year-old Kyle Timmons (acting neophyte Alex Shaffer), who’s taken a bus from Ohio to crash with his Grandpa Leo. A smoker with a bruised eye, Kyle looks like trouble, and his sphinx-like flat affect leave Mike and his wife Jackie guessing, but they take him in on a temporary basis as they attempt to contact Kyle’s mother (and as Mike tries to keep his lie under wraps).
The laconic lad reveals unexpected depths, including an astonishing gift for wrestling that quickly has Mike seeing medals. Kyle’s mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) won’t be winning any awards for child-rearing or elder care, but she may yet prove a spoiler for both the wrestling season and Mike’s legal career.
McCarthy does a fine job of juggling the domestic mystery, situational comedy, and inevitable drama, and his terrific cast is well-suited to the deadpan ethical satire. Giamatti and Ryan are typically sterling, Shaffer proves both amusing and credible, and Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) and Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) make a great, buffoonish double act as Mike’s friends and unlikely assistant coaches.
Jackie’s observation “We all do stupid things” is but one of the poignant lessons learned by Mike and Kyle--about morality, trust and, yes, the true meaning of winning--that will resonate with both adult and teen viewers. Parents shouldn’t be be scared off by the “R” rating (for profanity); McCarthy’s film makes for a “win win” day at the movies, with talking points to follow.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Win Win comes to Blu-ray in a special edition built around an excellent hi-def transfer. The picture accurately recreates the filmic textures and sallow color scheme of its source, with light grain and strong detail. Contrast and black level are on the moderate side in seeming reflection of the sad-sack hero. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix does what it came to do in recreating the theatrical audio with clarity and enough discrete separation for a subtly immersive soundfield, while the music comes full-bodied.
Two "Deleted Scenes" (1:54, HD) don't amount to much, but they're better than none at all.
The basically self-explanatory "Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni Discuss Win Win" (6:29, HD) sits director McCarthy with his co-writer Tiboni to chat about the project's beginnings and development.
"David Thompson at Sundance 2011" (2:27, HD) follows the actor who plays Stemmler in the film as he experiences the Sundance Film Festival.
"In Conversation with Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti at Sundance 2011" (2:26, HD) is a brief promo with film clips and a few interview clips of director and star; "Family" (2:24, HD) is a similar promotional featurette mixing clips and talking heads.
Last up are "'Think You Can Wait' Music Video by The National" (4:35, HD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer"(2:22, HD).
It's too bad that this special edition isn't more special when it comes to the bonus features (no commentary from McCarthy? C'mon, Fox—pony up!), but the film itself is well worth seeking out, especially in its hi-def presentation.
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