Thursday 19 May 2011

On the mat: "Win Win"

With the triangular manoeuvrings at the centre of his triumphant 2004 debut The Station Agent, the writer, director and sometime actor Tom McCarthy revealed himself to be a filmmaker uniquely interested in the circumstances and consequences of individuals being thrown together, often against their will. McCarthy's 2008 follow-up The Visitor - pitching uptight academic Richard Jenkins against illegal aliens on the streets of post-9/11 Manhattan - confirmed the suspicion here was a humanist of the old school, dressed in hip new indie trousers; for his next trick, Win Win, he attempts an egalitarian sports movie, one that seeks to put the contributions of those struggling on the sidelines on a dramatic par with the accomplishments of life's winners, while venturing a statement of sorts on American attitudes to success. In this, it's only partially successful, but it's watchable as far as it goes.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, an ailing private practice lawyer who spends his days shuttling oldtimers into care homes in a bid to balance the books, and his evenings coaching the no-hope local wrestling squad. Circumstances lead to Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) taking in their polar opposite in life: Kyle (Alex Shaffer), an apparently disaffected teenager fleeing a broken home, who finds incomparably easy everything his guardians regard as hard work, and turns out to be the most gifted wrestler Mike has ever seen. A Zen-like motivator, Kyle transforms the fortunes of the team almost overnight, but his new-found standing attracts a variety of hangers-on - and brings a whole new raft of problems to the Flahertys' door.

Less schematic than The Visitor - a welcome yet worthy response to the insularity of American foreign and domestic policy - Win Win again highlights the skill and generosity of the McCarthy approach. These are among the small handful of characters destined for a multiplex near you who convince as real people, intersecting in messy, fractious, credible ways that provide ample opportunity for the main players to make an impression. Nobody's doing anything radically new here - save, perhaps, Ryan, who gets to play warmer and more maternal than she did in the character parts with which she made her name, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's estranged mother, a role less mellifluous than this generally sympathetic actress has been used to. Yet everyone's doing what they are doing rather well: Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor make cherishable wise monkeys as the wrestling team management, and there's a sharp and funny turn from newcomer Shaffer, who sometimes appears to be channeling Sean Penn's talismanic Fast Times at Ridgemont High drifter Jeff Spicoli in a more realistic key.

You just wish the film housing these performances was a little more dynamic and daring; as it is, a mid-film montage set to a Bon Jovi track is as lively as it gets. After the recent Cedar Rapids, Win Win is another example of the (studio-backed) "little indie": a broadly unobjectionable proposition that scratches round in its own backyard, amusing rather than achieving anything more distinctive, lasting or challenging, and butting up against interesting themes and ideas without ever threatening to break through and develop them. The film's second half, in particular, pootles along, only a few clicks north of a made-for-television custody battle, before downsizing only further in sympathy with its central character. Maybe in the present financial climate, this is how things have to be, but it results in a movie more concerned with getting by than anything, micro where the themes and pleasures of The Station Agent were unapologetically macro. Film of the week in a disappointing week, it's a score-draw: not without its entertaining moments, but ultimately rather less conclusive than one might like.

Win Win opens nationwide tomorrow.

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