McCarthy’s films all beat with both a messiness and a purity in their big, open hearts. They feel less like perfectly buffed gems, but more like bedraggled stuffed toys, kinda shaggy, a little worn around the edges, and yet warm with the hugs of kind-hearted company. Win Win is a feel-good movie that doesn’t resort to cheap shots for its audience’s sympathy. It makes you feel more than just good, but really earns your affection. It’s like McCarthy went through the Pixar writing boot camp and came out with a better grasp of story balance, but left behind the more obvious of the Lasseter template’s emotional machinations. If, at certain beats, Station Agent strayed too whimsical, while The Visitor swung too melancholy, Win Win is “just right”, like a bowl of yummy, satisfying porridge.
A pretty nuanced filmmaker to start with, this film shows how McCarthy continues to expand his shades of grey instead of clinging to the more contrasting edges of the spectrum. Paul Giamatti may be McCarthy’s least physically appealing protagonist yet, a calculated casting risk that even the braver peddlers of cinematic quirk such as the Coens and Wes Anderson, seem to be less ready to take these days. Whereas Dinklage has out-sized charisma and Jenkins still has some rumpled middle-aged swagger, the paunchy and ruddy Giamatti isn’t gonna set a lot of, if any, hearts aflutter. McCarthy dodges this issue (or maybe this was why he cast Giamatti in the first place) by Win-Win being his only film so far with no overt romantic elements. This one’s about family, and like a zillion sports movies before it, the thrill of competition and how it can be seen as a metaphor for life itself. Giamatti’s marriage to Amy Ryan‘s character is already pretty solid, no need to woo her any further or win her back during their rough patch with everything else that’s going on. It’s a pretty traditional plot structure but McCarthy keeps it fresh by giving each character more facets than you’d normally expect. Ryan in the no-nonsense wife role shows that she’s not just another redhead standing in for Patricia Clarkson, but a welcome new member of the McCarthy repertory (if there already is such a thing). She brings a sharp, wry humor to the character that makes it more than just the token supportive spouse. There are no cardboard cartoon villains, just human beings being human – that is – selfish, opportunistic, and capricious. Melanie Lynskey may be the nominal spanner in the works, but even she is defined more by her relatable weaknesses than any outright antagonism. I may have erred by saying there’s no romance in this movie, because after a break with The Visitor, McCarthy brings back his not-so-secret weapon in the form of Bobby Cannavale. The fictional bromance between his character and Giamatti’s and the palpable real-life one between the actor and the writer-director are one more element adding to the project’s huggable vibe. Newcomer Alex Shaffer, around whose character the film revolves around, is neither a vapid prettyboy or sexy young rebel, but a creature rarely seen in current cinema – a realistic adolescent, and all the complex layers that connotes, full of hormones and pride, with just a smidgen of angst, but still a good kid at heart, albeit a bit lost. And Shaffer pulls this off like a natural, without or because of not putting much effort into “acting”. Again this being a “sports” movie, we get more than a few rooting-for-the-underdog and fist-pump-in-the-air moments, but instead of the film being all about these win-lose set-pieces, they’re merely incidental to the more involving kitchen sink dramedic goings-on building up to the denouement. The end may be more bitter than sweet, but all things considered , it really feels “just right”.
I don’t know if it’s because this is the first McCarthy film I’d seen in high-definition, but I also got the sense that he’s developed visually as a director. With less quirkily charming scenery and a colder color palate to work with compared to Station Agent, and lacking the effortlessly photogenic backdrop of Manhattan as in The Visitor, McCarthy and German cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg manage to make small-town New Jersey glow enough to make living there not seem so bad, even inviting. Well, at least if you have neighbors as nice and noble as Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale.