The movie poster and Blu-ray cover make it look as if "Win Win" is a sport movie, and it is, to the extent that the main character is about as successful in his side job as a high school wrestling coach as he is in his legal practice. But the wrestling sequences don't drive this film. Yes, the pathetic results he's produced as a coach echo his failures as an attorney, but "Win Win" is really about mediocrity, not sports. It's about being a basically normal guy who lives an undistinguished life and wonders, when he meets an exceptionally talented young wrestler who placed in the top five in the State of Ohio, "What does it feel like to be that good at something?"
Paul Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, who's facing the reality that he might have to close his office due to a lack of clients. He's not the only one in America worrying about money, and desperate people can sometimes do stupid, desperate things. "Win Win" is about second chances, and there are nice parallels between the successful young wrestler and this balding, borderline failure of a man.
"Win Win" tells the story of a good man who has a lapse in judgment and does one wrong thing in his life. I have neighbors who drive the wrong way down a one-way street on a daily basis. If I did it just once to save time, I'd get caught. I'm sure of it. The same thing happens to Mike Flaherty, who decides to fleece a rich client in order to keep from having to explain to his wife what a failure he's become.
In a way, while "Win Win" is no more a sports movie than Moby-Dick is a whaling novel, this winning indie dramedy offers a nice reminder about the place that spectator sports have in people's lives--why, for example, it matters so much to an average fan whether his favorite team wins or loses. Mostly, though, "Win Win" is an ironic film with intelligent dialogue, a character-driven story, and dynamite understated performances.
Giamatti and Tony-nominated actress Amy Ryan (as Mike's wife Jackie) hit all the right notes in playing roles that demand a wide range of emotions, many of which are communicated non-verbally. There's no indie drag to this film, partly because writer-director Thomas McCarthy won't let it bog down, but mostly because we enjoy watching Giamatti, Ryan, and the others inhabit their characters.
Jeffrey Tambor ("Arrested Development") and comedian-actor Bobby Cannavale likewise bring nuanced performances to characters that could easily have gone over-the-top--Mike's buddies and assistant coaches who, with him, inhale the exhilarating breath of fresh air that new kid Kyle brings. Kyle is played by former high-school wrestler Alex Shaffer, and he too seems comfortable in his character's skin. Surrounded by so much talent, he also does a great job nailing his part, and he plays well off of Ryan, in particular.
There's not much plot, really. Mike needs money, and running gags and a secretary (Nina Arianda) remind us of that from time to time. The client that Mike betrays (Burt Young as Leo) needs to be visited in the home where Mike put him, against his wishes, and the forward trajectory is supplied by the emergence of wrestler Kyle, who shows up one day to visit his Grandpa Leo. Surprise! . . . . though it's no shock that the relationship between Kyle and the Flahertys is complicated not only by Mike's secret, but by the disappearing and reappearing acts of Kyle's erstwhile mother (Melanie Lynskey).
"Win Win" is an accomplished film that could have gone astray so many ways it boggles the mind to think about them. It could have gone too sporto and we'd have had another win-or-lose high-stakes genre film. It could have gotten schmaltzy, risking emotion the way it does, but it remains honest. It could have turned into a sitcom, but every time shallow gags threaten to take it in that direction, the filmmakers bring it right back to the dramatic. It also could have slumped into shuffle-along pacing, but McCarthy and co-writer Joe Tiboni keep things moving.
"Win Win" is rated R for language (and also one bare male butt).
The video is impressive too. Brought to 50GB Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec, "Win Win" has a nice texture throughout. There's a pleasing layer of film grain, and the kind of detail we've grown accustomed to seeing on HD, particularly in close-ups and two-shots. Except for the wrestling sequences, which burst with color, McCarthy seems to have deliberately chosen to go with more naturalistic, muted colors. Black levels are strong, but don't look for much color saturation. It's not what this film is about. "Win Win" is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
It's harder to rate the dialogue because this is such an understated, dialogue-driven film, but there are enough outbursts (vocal and otherwise) to remind us that the rear speakers are still connected. It's not a dynamic or immersive track by any stretch of the imagination, but it does what it has to do--and that's deliver clear, distortion-free dialogue. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
There aren't a lot of extras here--just a six-minute chat between the co-writers about where the idea came from (Tiboni's real life), another conversation (3 min.) between McCarthy and Giamatti at Sundance 2011, and two-minute promo piece on the film, the theatrical trailer, a "Think You Can Wait" music video (The National), and two deleted scenes that run just two minutes total.
"Win Win" is worth a look look. As indie dramedies go, it's a good one.