Win Win (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
Scrawny, shaggy-haired Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the far-and-away star of his high-school wrestling team, coasts down the hallway after practice. With his backpack slung over his shoulder and a halfway vacant look in his eyes, you would never know that moments ago he performed feats of athleticism that screamed Hall of Fame.
His coach, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), can't quite get a grasp on it, either. Flaherty was an average wrestler in his younger years, and coaches a below-average team. He barely knows how to manage talent like Kyle's. Flaherty asks an obvious but brilliant question: "How does it feel to be that good?"
Kyle says it's like he's in total control — not just of himself or his opponent, but of everything in his life. But it's more than that: He's in control of the movie he's in.
Win Win, the latest work by writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) needs Kyle like Flaherty needs him. Any time Kyle's not wrestling, the film loses its focus.
See, Kyle is also living with Flaherty because Flaherty is also an attorney who, in a moment of desperation, concocted a scheme in which he made an agreement with the court that he would take care of an old man so the old man wouldn't lose his house. Instead, Flaherty's dumped the old man at a nursing home and collected the small fee ($1,500 per month) for being his caretaker.
Then the old man's grandson, Kyle, shows up. Kyle's a wreck. He's been kicked out of school, he smokes, and he has authority issues thanks to his drug-addicted, absentee mother and their tumultuous past. So Flaherty and his wife (Amy Ryan) take him in, enroll him in school and discover his stardom.
Eventually, the junkie mom (Melanie Lynskey) shows up to get her father's affairs in order and discovers Flaherty's deception. Suddenly, his world comes tumbling down, dragging Kyle and his shot at the championships with it.
McCarthy has helmed a quietly effective sports movie, complete with the suspenseful final match. In this effort, he succeeds; the wrestling's verisimilitude lifts it above standard fare. But by wrapping that simple structure in silky indie garments — precious, on-the-nose dialogue, muted colors, dysfunctional supporting characters — and topping it with a courtroom crown, McCarthy ends up with a cluttered, messy ensemble that works in dim light but withers the moment you leave the theater.
Giamatti is effective at moments, especially one-on-one with Shaffer, whose blankness serves as a tabula rasa for Giamatti's anxious brush strokes. But with at least five films under his belt in the last couple of years and with only small variations in all of the performances, it's worth asking whether indie audiences are suffering from Giamatti fatigue. There are countless long takes here of the actor looking forlorn or playing whipping boy to his alpha friends. Paired with McCarthy's unusually loose tone — the film could have made a left turn into melodrama or broad comedy without it surprising very much — it's a recipe for disaster.
Luckily, Win Win has Kyle, a rock who should not be expected to shoulder that burden. I agree with one of Flaherty's friends, who comments that Kyle has "man-strength, not boy-strength," and just wish that McCarthy had brought his own Station Agent man-strength to the table.