Out of all of Thomas McCarthy’s movies, Win Win feels the most complete. It’s partially because of how he astutely blends the gloom of a family drama with the emotional uplift of a sports movie: Win Win is so full of affect that it is hard not to fall for its charms. Despite the many different layers of the narrative, the movie still maintains a consistently cozy tone and it always feels like McCarthy has control over the direction and movement of the plot. Thus, the emotional highs and lows of the story feel earned, more so than in The Station Agent and The Visitor. This is one reason why I am such a fan of McCarthy: he has always shown development in his writing and directorial sensibilities with every movie that he releases.
The real highlights of this movie are the characters. Paul Giamatti (a.k.a. the most underrated actor in Hollywood) is Mike Flaherty, a lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach whose legal business is having financial troubles. In order to keep it afloat, he conspires to take on the guardianship of one of his elderly clients suffering from dementia in order to get a sizable monthly stipend. This forms the central moral conflict of the story: his client wants to stay home, but because Mike can’t provide care for him, he tricks him into believing that he is required by law to stay in an elderly care facility. He gets the money without any of the responsibility.
Things become more complicated when his client’s grandson Kyle, played by Alex Sheffer, shows up unexpectedly and Mike is forced to take him into his home and temporarily adopt him. Kyle is a taciturn, brooding teenager who left his home because of his mother’s drug problem and her abusive boyfriend who beats him up. Mike’s wife Jackie, played by Amy Ryan, is hesitant at first, especially since they have two daughters, but she soon warms up to him because Kyle, as it turns out, is a nice kid. Looking beyond people’s appearances is another McCarthy touch: the dwarf, the illegal immigrant and now the runaway — he has upended all the traditional expectations placed on these character tropes. He has such a strong conviction in people, that they can and do surprise you if you get to know them well enough.
Kyle, as it turns out, is an excellent wrestler. Mike enrolls him in school and recruits him to his losing team. At first this seems like an opportunistic decision, similar to how he grabbed at the chance to get a monthly check from Kyle’s grandfather. But inasmuch as he helps the team out by winning matches for them, he is also saved by the team by having a support system of friends and coaches that was absent in his life before. Mike also begins to assume a more paternal role in Kyle’s life, and like some sort of great karmic force asserted itself on him, he provides the guardianship that he was supposed to provide for his client.
This component of the movie — Kyle’s wrestling career — plays out like an underdog sports movie, as we see him and the team slowly go up the ranks. McCarthy understands the ebb and the flow of adrenalin and emotion necessary to make this compelling, and Kyle’s progress with the team mirrors the drama of his life outside the ring. When his mother suddenly shows up during an important match, he gets aggressive and gets kicked out of the match. This time, he couldn’t control his pent up aggression and he let his anger get the better of him. Control and restraint – these are things Kyle needs to learn and Mike is willing to teach.