WIN WIN (2011)

Running Time:  106 mins.                      Rating: 3 Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Genre: Comedy/Drama

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale


Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a sole practitioner lawyer in the town of New Providence, New Jersey. He is a hardworking guy who has always played by the rules and has tried to live the suburban dream. By the looks of everything, he seems to have won. He has a beautiful wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), three kids and the house with the white pocket fence.

Given today’s rough economic climate, looks can often be deceiving however. Mike admits to his building co-tenant, a CPA named Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), that he is having financial issues. He has lost clients and he is running out of money. His administrative assistant reminds him about a court appointment that he has for an elderly client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), whose drug-addicted daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) wants guardianship of him. Mike has legitimate concerns about her but is own integrity comes into question when he learns that he can make $1,500 per month for being Leo’s guardian.

Mike is successful at getting the judge to grant him custody of Leo over Cindy when he promises that he will make sure that Leo will continue to live in his home. As soon as he leaves the courthouse with Leo he reneges on his word as he places him in an assisted living facility. Mike figures that it’s a “win win” situation. Leo can get great care in a very well maintained facility while he has an easy source of extra income.

Things start getting complicated when Mike passes Leo’s house one afternoon and finds a teenage boy sitting in front of it. Mike discovers that Kyle (Alex Shaffer) is Leo’s grandson who has run away from his Ohio home to get away from his mom, Cindy. Mike’s original plan is for Kyle stay with him for a few days but he is eager to extend it when he finds out that Kyle was a star wrestler at his old high school. Mike has long served as the New Providence High School wrestling coach and his team always has the worst record in the Garden State. His eyes understandably light up the way Michael Jordan and LeBron James’s high school coaches must have when those prodigies first tried out for them.

Kyle sees Mike as both a true father figure and friend. Of course he is unaware of Mike’s financial arrangement with his grandfather for most of the film. You know that Mike’s halo is going to get tarnished.

It is not exactly a revelation to say that Paul Giamatti is one of the best actors working today. He has played a wide assortment of characters but for my money Mike Flaherty is clearly his most relatable screen role.

Newcomer Alex Shaffer is in real life a current high school wrestling champion from Bernardsville, New Jersey and this is his first acting role. His speaking mannerisms and bleached blond hair remind one of a more low-key version of Sean Penn’s iconic Jeff Spiccoli character from 1982?s FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH.

Coincidentally two of the films key actors are Queens natives. Amy Ryan who plays Mike’s sharp wife grew up in Flushing and attended PS 173 and JHS 216. Burt Young (real name: Richard Morea), who is best known for playing Pauly in the ROCKY film series, grew up in Corona.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy, who himself was a high school wrestler in New Jersey, has made a very thoughtful film and whose numerous plot lines develop and resolve themselves in progression that seems unhurried and unforced.

WIN WIN does live up to its name.

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