Friday, April 08, 2011

Film Review: 'Win Win'

Riding the Wave of Life’s Indignities

The New York Times
March 17, 2011

Paul Giamatti, left, with Alex Shaffer in “Win Win,” directed by Tom McCarthy from his screenplay.(Kimberly Wright/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

There are actors who suffer nobly, with tragic and stoical reserve. Then there is Paul Giamatti. Squirrel cheeked and beetle browed, with rounded shoulders and a scratchy voice, he is a virtuoso of exasperation, a maestro of disappointment, an intrepid navigator through squalls of frustration and failure. Who else could have played John Adams, the most misunderestimated of the founding fathers, a great man and also a petty one, possessed of an outsize sense of grievance? Or Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who wrung deadpan, misanthropic comic-book masterpieces from the grind of daily existence?

Mike Flaherty, the New Jersey burgher Mr. Giamatti plays in “Win Win,” Tom McCarthy’s funny and warmhearted new film, is cut from more modest cloth. A lawyer with a struggling storefront practice who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, Mike lives a life of suburban contentment shadowed by the usual material and moral anxieties. Married — to Amy Ryan, as his and the audience’s luck would have it — with two young daughters, Mike is beleaguered by small indignities that threaten to add up to something big and scary. His wrestlers can’t win a match. The boiler at his office is broken. Business is drying up in a grim economy. Nothing catastrophic, but if he could just catch a little break, things would sure be easier.

The break arrives, and of course things get complicated. One of Mike’s clients is an old man named Leo (Burt Young), who is slipping into senility with no family to care for him. Mike persuades a judge to name him Leo’s guardian, figuring there will not be any harm done if he pockets the monthly stipend and installs his ward in a nursing home. And this initial win-win situation pays a surprising dividend when Leo’s teenage grandson shows up, on the run from an unhappy domestic situation in Ohio. The boy, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who seems a little threatening at first, turns out to be not only a nice kid but also a remarkably talented wrestler. He comes to live with Mike’s family, enrolls at the high school and for a while allows Mike to bask in the kind of all-American self-satisfaction that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for “The Blind Side.”

Mr. McCarthy neatly sets up the elements that will bring about Mike’s self-deluding rise, his near-calamitous fall and his eventual redemption. There are no real surprises, but this is not to say that “Win Win” is rote or formulaic. Quite the opposite. Mr. McCarthy, who has written and directed two other features — and who is a first-rate character actor specializing in second-rate characters — has a deep and nuanced understanding of the rules of comedy, which is at once the most rigorous and the most elastic of narrative genres. He also possesses a sharp wit and a generous spirit, mocking his characters without meanness and lampooning their social circumstances without condescension.

New Jersey, lately travestied as an inferno of vulgar hedonism on MTV, is here shown to be if not quite an earthly paradise, then at least a garden of reasonable middle-class delights. (It was also the setting of “The Station Agent,” Mr. McCarthy’s quiet and quirky directorial debut.) The spirit of the place is not so much Bruce Springsteen — or even Bon Jovi, name-checked by Ms. Ryan — as Frank Bascombe, the decent and world-weary hero of Richard Ford’s great “Sportswriter” trilogy. No melodrama, no great claims of world-historical significance: just the daily business of trying to get ahead and do what’s right.

The promise of this film’s title — which can be taken both ironically and sincerely — is that those two things can go together, that success and virtue can walk hand in hand. This is close to a definition of the American Dream, and while Mr. McCarthy treats it with a raised eyebrow, he forgoes easy cynicism or knowing satire. This means that “Win Win” goes a bit soft in places, protecting its characters from serious danger or tough moral reckoning. But the film’s niceness is also central to its appeal, because nearly all of the characters are people you enjoy spending time with.

And they do seem like real people. Mr. McCarthy is in no hurry to push the story forward, preferring to give his cast members room to explore one another and their curious, ordinary surroundings. Some of the best scenes involve Mr. Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale, who plays Mike’s best friend, Terry. Terry is not essential to the plot — his own briefly glimpsed troubles would make for a funny-sad indie comedy in their own right — but he does yeoman work as Mike’s foil, second banana and partner in foolishness. When Jeffrey Tambor shows up (playing Mike’s coaching assistant and office mate), it’s like watching a master class in offbeat comic brilliance, as the three actors try to top one another at self-effacement.

Ms. Ryan has her chance as well, as does the ever-reliable Mr. Young. Mr. Shaffer, a first-time actor and an accomplished high school wrestler, is as diffident and puzzling as a real teenager. The only character denied a full measure of human complexity is Kyle’s mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who shows up to add a dose of melodrama and to symbolize the bad stuff that exists just beyond the horizon of the Flahertys’ comfort zone.

“Win Win” does not leave that cozy realm, but it finds enough to work with there. It is in no way challenging or provocative, but it is never dull or obvious. It’s a good movie about trying to be good.

“Win Win” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Language familiar to anyone who has driven in New Jersey.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed and written by Tom McCarthy; based on a story by Mr. McCarthy and Joe Tiboni; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Lyle Workman; production design by John Paino; costumes by Melissa Toth; produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London, Lisa Maria Falcone and Mr. McCarthy; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.

WITH: Paul Giamatti (Mike Flaherty), Amy Ryan (Jackie Flaherty), Bobby Cannavale (Terry Delfino), Jeffrey Tambor (Stephen Vigman), Burt Young (Leo Poplar), Melanie Lynskey (Cindy), Alex Shaffer (Kyle), Margo Martindale (Eleanor) and David Thompson (Stemler).

Just Like the Good Old Days in the Ring

The New York Times
March 18, 2011

Amy Ryan, left, Paul Giamatti, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer in “Win Win.”(Kimberly Wright/Twentieth Century Fox)

DURING their childhood in New Providence, N.J., sports were not the strong suit of Tom McCarthy and his friend Joe Tiboni.

“One of the first times we met was trying out for the basketball team,” said Mr. McCarthy, now a film director and writer. “The coach was our next-door neighbor. He cut both of us, and then he had to drive us home.”

Mr. Tiboni added, “This was the church team, by the way.”

High school wrestling was an even uglier affair. “I was average,” said Mr. McCarthy, 45, who clocked in at 101 pounds back then. “Joe was below average.”

Mr. Tiboni, 44, more or less agreed, recalling a match in which he was initially winning 13 to 1 but ended up being defeated 14 to 15. “The coach threw a garbage can,” he said over lunch at an Italian restaurant on the Bowery. Yet all this losing led to “Win Win,” the wrestling dramedy Mr. McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”) wrote with Mr. Tiboni, who is an elder-care lawyer in their hometown. Paul Giamatti’s character in the film has the same job as Mr. Tiboni and is drawn into a complicated family crisis when he agrees to become the legal guardian of one of his clients. At the center of that drama is Kyle, the client’s grandson, who skips town to search for his grandfather when his mother goes to rehab. Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale also appear in the movie, which was to open Friday.

“I just called Joe and said, ‘Let’s develop a movie based on New Providence wrestling,’ ” Mr. McCarthy said. He had been encouraging Mr. Tiboni to write for years, and for this project, he needed his friend’s perspective. “I’ve never raised a family,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Joe gave me insight into that world. We wanted to represent it without either condescending to it or sentimentalizing it.”

Mr. McCarthy also wanted the wrestling to look extremely authentic. Almost as soon as the friends decided to make the movie (while eating sandwiches on the back deck of Mr. McCarthy’s parents’ house, “just like when we were 13,” Mr. McCarthy said), they knew it would have to include actual wrestlers.

They held an open call. The ad asked for wrestlers in the weight range of 112 to 125 pounds, “no acting experience required.” Plenty of young athletes were interested, and all the members of the on-screen squad are real-life wrestlers.

Casting one part was a more crucial decision than the rest. Mr. McCarthy had written a role for a troubled teenage boy who turns out to be a wrestling sensation. Obviously superior wrestling technique was a must for the character, Kyle. But so were serious acting chops. In a film with so many formidable classically trained actors, you might suspect that the boy’s role would be on the skimpy side. But he’s in nearly every scene.

“If Kyle doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work,” Mr. McCarthy said. But the wrestling’s authenticity was so important that he decided to take a risk: cast an athlete, teach him to act, and hope he pulls it off.

Enter 17-year-old Alex Shaffer — in purple and green flannel pajama bottoms. “My friend texted me and said, ‘Dude, there’s an article in the paper, there’s a casting call for wrestlers,’ ” Mr. Shaffer said by phone while eating lunch at McDonald’s.

“I was always secretly interested in acting, so I came in and auditioned,” he said. “I was very surprised they liked me. But I knew they did when the casting girl was like, ‘This isn’t your first time doing this, is it?’ I was like, ‘Nah, dude.’ ”

It wasn’t, technically. Mr. Shaffer had played Samuel in “Pirates of Penzance” in sixth grade. But whatever stage-swashbuckling skills he had picked up back then weren’t what caught Mr. McCarthy’s eye.

“Alex has his own rhythm, and this surfer affect that’s almost like an accent,” Mr. McCarthy said. “My editor was like, ‘Where’s this kid from?’ And I said, ‘Jersey, like me.’ ”

There was something more, though, beneath the audition’s mellow vibe. “A lot of teenagers I know are like this,” Mr. McCarthy said. “They’re deadpan, disinterested. But beneath that veneer of coolness there’s a real personality, and you feel lucky if you get to see it.”

Tom McCarthy, the director of the wrestling movie “Win Win,” on a mat with Alex Shaffer, 17.(Kimberly Wright/Twentieth Century Fox)

The clincher: Mr. Shaffer, who was attending Hunterdon Central High School at the time, was New Jersey’s wrestling state champion in the 119-pound weight class.

Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Tiboni started going to Mr. Shaffer’s matches. “Wrestling’s a lot more enjoyable when you’re not worried about getting killed,” Mr. McCarthy said. At the same time they “auditioned the hell out of Alex.”

“He came in seven, eight, nine times,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I had to extrapolate where his ability was going to get to. He wasn’t always getting it, but he was always trying.”

Ms. Ryan was impressed by his persistence. “Alex didn’t want to be good for his ego,” said Ms. Ryan, who plays Mr. Giamatti’s wife in the film. “He wanted to be good because he wanted to figure it out. I think he just understands, from wrestling, what it’s like to be thrown into the ring with people potentially better than him.”

He also knew how to work hard. “A lot of it was just discipline,” Mr. Shaffer said. “With wrestling I’d be running till 2 or 3 in the morning to lose five pounds. With the movie I’d be up til 2 or 3 in the morning trying to memorize my lines.”

While he worked doggedly to make his performance authentic, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Tiboni worked to get the portrayal of their hometown and its high school wrestling right.

Because of tax credits, they shot on Long Island rather than in New Providence. But they scouted locations tirelessly, most notably the office and home that Mr. Giamatti’s character shuttles between. “That office is literally exactly my office,” Mr. Tiboni said of the bare-bones, carpeted space. “And the house looks so much like mine, my neighbors thought it was mine. They thought their houses had just been Photoshopped out.”

Though the locations might have been fudged, the filmmakers kept New Providence High School in the film by using its banners, uniforms and wrestling mats, an effort facilitated by one of their former classmates, who’s now the school’s principal. Mr. Tiboni remembered one gym detail very well: a ceiling flag emblazoned with “If you can read this, you’re pinned.” A stunt coordinator with wrestling experience was hired to choreograph the teenage actors’ scenes.

The meticulous attention to detail paid off. Mr. McCarthy knew he’d gotten it right when, after a screening, his star approached him. “Alex just said, ‘The wrestling looks legit,’ ” Mr. McCarthy said. “That’s when I knew I’d got it.”

True, Mr. Shaffer is relieved “Win Win” didn’t butcher his art. “I didn’t want to see another ‘Vision Quest,’ ” he said.

What Mr. Shaffer didn’t realize when he signed up to help legitimize “Win Win” was that real-life wrestling, for him, would be over soon. He recently injured his L5 vertebrae, which has ended his career.

He has clearly gained some perspective on what must be a devastating loss. “Sadly, I cannot wrestle anymore,” Mr. Shaffer said. “But I accomplished my goal for senior year sophomore year. And I’m really grateful I got the role in this movie, because I want to keep going.”

He added: “Acting is something, I’ll tell you what.”

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