Win Win

April 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)

While most sports-themed films focus on the game-winning shot at the buzzer or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, none are as emotionally rich as the ones that revel in the post-game celebration. Even then, winning isn’t everything if the narrative is brimming with spirited drama like in “Rocky,” “A League of Their Own,” or “Friday Night Lights.”

Sure, watching Rudy Ruettiger on the sidelines during his team’s final defensive stance in “Rudy” would have been extremely anticlimactic, and Daniel LaRusso probably would’ve found himself in a body bag if he hadn’t crane-kicked Johnny in the face at the end of “The Karate Kid,” but those things happen. The ball doesn’t always find the center of the rim. The coach leaves you sipping Gatorade on the bench. Nerves factor in. Someone always goes home disappointed.

It takes a film like “Win Win” to find a silver lining or thematic balance when a screenplay isn’t dictated by typical Hollywood standards. Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”), “Win Win” isn’t so much an inspirational “Pride of the Yankees”-type sports movie as it is an endearing family dramedy set delicately in the competitive world of high school wrestling.

Unlike Gary Cooper in that 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” is far from announcing to anyone that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” As a small-town New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) worries about how he will support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. Moonlighting as the local high school wrestling coach doesn’t help ease any anxiety since his team of young grapplers is missing a few things, specifically skill.

But Mike’s problems seem to be solved two-fold when he agrees to take legal guardianship of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client suffering from early stages of dementia. Afterwards, Mike’s moral compass spins out of control; he pockets the monthly stipend and checks the old man into a retirement home. His sketchy behavior leads him into the path of Leo’s unusually mature, albeit slightly rebellious, teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer in a breakout role), who happens to know his way around a wrestling mat. Mike and Jackie are adamant about giving Kyle the stable, suburban upbringing he needs after they find out the only adult in his life is his drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey). McCarthy writes Kyle with sensitivity and depth and treats him like a real kid, as opposed to the oversized puppy dog Sandra Bullock boards in “The Blind Side.”

McCarthy could’ve replaced the wrestling scenes with scenes from any other sport and still produced the same heartwarming and darkly hilarious movie (credit actors Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coaches). The crux of this story comes from the complex relationships between all of McCarthy’s meaningful human characters. Giamatti’s role isn’t a stretch from the frustrated failures he’s accustomed to playing, but there is such a decent heart inside Mike that it allows audiences to overlook some of his early underhandedness and will his redemptive qualities to the forefront. Newcomer Shaffer holds his own in the daunting task of sharing the screen with juggernaut Oscar nominees; his non-actor charisma and natural athleticism (he’s really a state high school wrestling champion from Jersey) maintain his believability. “Win Win” may not be a flawless victory, but McCarthy is able to pin us down effortlessly nonetheless, proving there’s more to life than being carried off the field a hero.

The Visitor

May 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”)

In the very first lead role of his entire 30-plus-year career as a supporting actor, Richard Jenkins has made heads turn in astonishment with “The Visitor.” Sure, it’s May but Jenkins has displayed the best performance of any actor since the start of the year with his passionate and dramatic turn.

In “The Visitor,” Jenkins is Walter Vale, a lonely economics professor living and working at a college in Connecticut. When the department chair asks Walter, who has become apathetic over the years as a teacher, to go to New York City for a conference, Walter grudgingly accepts the idea of having to sit through lectures for an entire weekend.

He will, however, get to go back to the apartment he owns in the West Village, a place he gets to rarely visit. But when Walter enters his flat, he surprises an immigrant couple who have been conned into believing Walter’s apartment is available for rent.

With nowhere to go Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who is from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jakesai Gurira), who is from the Senegal, take their belongings and stand aimlessly on the sidewalks of New York for a while before Walter tells them they can stay with him until they get on their feet.

To pay Walter back for his kindness, Tarek, who notices that Walter is intrigued by his djimbe African drum, begins to teach him how to play the instrument. The bond between Walter and the couple grows as their cultures reveal both the differences and similarities of strangers from opposite sides of the world.

When Tarek is arrested for a misunderstanding in the subway, everyone’s lives come go a standstill as Tarek is placed in a security facility to await deportation. While there, Walter makes all efforts to help the couple find an immigration lawyer and allows Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), to stay with him until they find a way to get her son out of confinement.

Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy, whose last film was the fantastic “The Station Agent” in 2003, “The Visitor” is a beautifully constructed albeit small film that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Jenkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance and McCarthy’s attention to human emotion is impressive.