Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Go to the Mat: Win Win

Though Paul Giamatti had no love on Oscar night, he just took home Canada’s best actor honors for Barney’s Version at the Genie Awards last week. His newest film is set in an even more exotic locale: New Jersey. With its new rock-star governor, Jersey is cool again, but nobody would accuse struggling attorney Mike Flaherty of being overly hip. He is an everyman who makes some very human mistakes in Tom McCarthy’s Win Win (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Poor Flaherty loses a lot. By day, his legal practice languishes, while in the afternoons he coaches the high school’s winless wrestling team. He is about to taste defeat again, on behalf of the mildly age-addled Leo Poplar. Unable to locate his client’s junkie daughter, Flaherty steps in at the last moment to become Poplar’s guardian. Yet, despite his assurances to keep the old man in his home, Flaherty immediately moves him into an assisted living facility. Oh, and there is that matter of the $1,500 monthly allowance he receives for managing Poplar’s estate.

Of course, things get a little awkward when the grandson Poplar never knew he had suddenly shows up. As fate would have it though, the kid can wrestle. In fact, he is a pinning machine. With young Kyle, brimming with resentment for his absentee mother, safely ensconced in the Flaherty basement, everything seems to be coming together for the luckless coach, but you-know-who is bound to show up eventually.

WinX2 might sound like a crowded house style sitcom, it is really a dramedy that leans more to the drama. However, that in turn requires the film to treat its characters seriously, which is rather refreshing. Indeed, Giamatti supplies the film’s heart as an average, reasonably well meaning guy, with oh-so human flaws. This is a role that could have easily gone to actor with a less nebbish image than Giamatti (John Adams not withstanding), but he perfectly expresses all of Flaherty’s average little fears and insecurities (that are never little or average to those experiencing them).

While there is no denying WinX2 can be manipulative, it deliberately sidesteps all the tired sports movie conventions. Likewise, the great Burt Young (Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie) avoids wallowing in clichéd pathos as Poplar, suggesting dignity and dementia are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, Alex Shaffer is a bit underwhelming as Kyle. Yes, all teenagers are sullen and his character has particularly acute socialization issues, but would it kill him to speak up a little? After all, he’s in a movie.

For all its sentimental elements, WinX2 is really a rather down-to earth affair. A big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it is a pleasing little film with a deeply satisfying lead performance from Giamatti. It opens this Friday (3/18) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika Film Center.