Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent and The Visitor) builds his story around Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-time New Jersey lawyer who represents elderly clients. A sour economy has put the pinch on Mike. He has no money to fix the boiler in his building, and he's worried about how he'll make ends meet at home.
Mike, as you might gather, is not the world's luckiest man. Witness: He serves as the volunteer coach of the local high school wrestling team, which has a record woeful enough to match an economy that has been pinned to the mat.
McCarthy mixes realistic observation and sports-movie tropes as he explores two major plot developments. In the first, Mike arranges for one of his clients (Burt Young) to be placed in an assisted living facility. On the verge of Alzheimer's Young's Leo Poplar needs help, but Mike's behavior in this matter may not be exemplary.
In a related development, Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up for a visit. When Kyle's drug-addicted mother was ordered into rehab, Kyle fled his Ohio home to escape Mom's abusive boyfriend. Because Kyle is unable to live with his grandfather, Mike decides to look after the boy, an act of ... let's say -- semi-altruism.
Why not full-bore altruism? As it turns out, Kyle was a champion wrestler back in Ohio. Should he enroll in the local high school, he just might help reverse the fortunes of Mike's downtrodden team, a prospect that buoys Mike's sagging spirits, as well as those of his assistant coach (a dour Jeffrey Tambor).
McCarthy assembles the ingredients of a standard sports movie, the kind that builds toward a triumphant finale with high-fives all around. Happily, he takes another tack, focusing on the ways in which Mike's decisions impact those around him, as well as on Kyle's search for an adult he can trust. Kyle's the kind of kid whose young life has been riddled with disappointment.
Shaffer, who had never acted prior to Win Win, offers a believable mix of sullenness and openness, and Giamatti again proves a master of the art of hangdog expression, coupled this time with a sneaky bent for pragmatism that sometimes leads him astray.
The supporting cast includes Amy Ryan, bracing and true as Mike's down-to-Earth wife, and Bobby Cannavale, a little over the top, as a wealthy friend of Mike's who's trying to get past the pain of a divorce and who sometimes acts the buffoon. Cannavale, who worked with McCarthy on Station Agent, provides comic relief -- although he never struck me as especially funny. Melanie Lynskey portrays Kyle's mother, a woman who shows up just when things seem to be progressing for her troubled son. She insists that Kyle return to Ohio with her.
McCarthy wraps things up in a way that's satisfying, perhaps because the ending is only slightly attenuated. There may be a few loose ends, but we get the feeling that things probably are going to work out for everyone involved.
Win Win uses a depressed economy as the starting point for a drama that can be accused of pulling a few punches, but compensates with characters who are life-sized, plausbile and appealingly ordinary. Admirably, it also refuses to surrender to the most obvious sports-movie cliches. It probably sounds condescending, but I mean no disrespect when I say that Win Win is a nice little movie.