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Win Win

Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan in Win Win.

Choke hold

Win Win

There would have to be something seriously wrong with a movie starring Paul Giamatti and written and directed by Tom McCarthy for it not to be worth your time. Giamatti is our reigning everyman actor: Even a supporting performance from him is usually enough to nudge a movie into “worth seeing” status.

And McCarthy is an actor-turned filmmaker whose first two efforts—The Station Agent, starring Peter Dinklage as a dwarf who inherits a New Jersey Train station, and The Visitor, with Richard Jenkins as a withdrawn academic who becomes involved in the lives of a family of African immigrants—are the kind of finely observed movies that give indie filmmaking a good name.

There is nothing so wrong with Win Win, McCarthy’s third film, that you should avoid it, but given his earlier work it’s a bit of a letdown.

Giamatti plays Mike, a New Jersey lawyer with a practice in elder law. Business should be booming, but it’s not, and he does something unethical in order to pay his bills. This involves a client named Leo, played by Burt Young, whom you may recall as Rocky Balboa’s brother-in-law.

Mike also coaches a high school wrestling team, about as effectively as he practices law. Enter Kyle, the grandson that Leo has never met, on the run from his difficult mother. He wants to stay with his grandfather, which would conflict with Mike’s plans. Instead, he winds up staying with Mike and his family. And wouldn’t you just know, turns out he’s a pretty good wrestler underneath all that adolescent angst.

In McCarthy’s first two films, the plot was a starting point from which to explore his characters. Here, the characters fall in line to the demands of the plot, which refuses to fade into the background. And it’s the kind of plot that insists on going to very specific places. Need I say that Kyle’s mother enters the picture? Or that Mike’s sins catch up with him?

Still, despite McCarthy having spun his web too tightly, there is plenty to enjoy here. Giamatti may one day weary of breathing life into average guys characters on the edge of desperation, but that day hasn’t come. The deadpan comic scenes he shares with co-stars Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale are fun, and his chemistry with Amy Ryan as the wife to whom he hasn’t confessed his financial problems is plausible if underdeveloped.

Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, was cast more for his wrestling abilities than his acting, but McCarthy uses him well: He’s like a sober Jeff Spiccoli. And Win Win has a real feeling for wrestling, which it depicts in a way that made me interested in the sport for the first time. One smells a metaphor for dealing with life’s persistent problems, but, as is his primarily strength as a filmmaker, McCarthy doesn’t belabor it. I probably would have liked Win Win more without the high expectations set by his previous films: It’s probably not the best film you’ll see this year, but it’s far from the worst.

It is also another film idiotically saddled with an R rating solely on the basis of some non-specific uses of the F word. Once again, let us give thanks to the MPAA ratings board for keeping our children’s ears safe from a word they hear all the time while allowing them to see no end of violence and smirky sex made by cynical filmmakers who have figured out how to game the board’s predilections.

Watch the trailer for Win Win

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