Known for his excellent, quiet character studies ('The Station Agent' and 'The Visitor'), writer-director Tom McCarthy attempts a more mainstream film with 'Win Win' through Fox Searchlight, who've had tons of critical success premiering their films at Sundance over the years ('Cyrus' and '500 Days of Summer' are two of the more recent ones). Ultimately it works for McCarthy, since 'Win Win' does a fine job of blending the filmmaker's low-key, slow-burn approach with the sort of pop-centric awkwardness we've come to expect from Fox Searchlight movies. The results may not please everyone -- especially those expecting to watch a flat-out 'Bad News Bears'-type romp, but in the end it delivers just the right blend of comedy and drama to leave you feeling satisfied, if not just a wee bit more interested in high school wrestling.
At this point it should be a rule that no Sundance Festival can go by without Paul Giamatti starring in at least one film. He's one of the easiest and most enjoyable actors to watch these days, and he's a perfect match for Tom McCarthy's fascination with somewhat down-on-their-luck male protagonists desperately trying to figure it all out. In 'Win Win,' Giamatti plays Mike, a suburban New Jersey father who's having a rough go at it with his small-town law practice, and seems to be on the verge of a financial breakdown. Part of his anxiety comes from the fact that his wife (Amy Ryan) has no idea they're having money issues, and like so many Americans these days, Mike -- who also moonlights as a high school wrestling coach for a team that's beyond awful -- is just trying to get through the day by putting out fires with the water he has instead of buying a new fire extinguisher.
That changes when Mike is presented the opportunity to claim legal guardianship of one of his older clients who's suffering through the early stages of dementia. Since they can't locate the man's daughter (his only living relative), Mike steps up to the plate and claims guardianship, but hides the fact that he's just doing it to snag the extra $1500 per month he gets for taking on the task. Mike then sticks the guy in an old-age home, checks up on him here and there, and waits for his sweet monthly check.
A curveball is thrown at Mike, however, when the man's angsty teenage grandson Kyle shows up from Ohio, eager to escape a rough home life and set up some new roots by moving in with the grandfather he's never met. But since pops is holed up in a home, Mike is forced to temporarily take the kid in, thereby creating even more problems for the family.
What Mike doesn't know (but soon learns) is that Kyle is a fantastic wrestler who has won tons of trophies back in Ohio. Thus with the help of his assistant coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), the three prime Kyle as their way to finally turn the wrestling team around. At the same time, Kyle's never-can-lose attitude begins to rub off on Mike, who starts to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And then more problems arise.
Despite its seemingly bizarre premise, 'Win Win' succeeds best when it focuses on the "buddy comedy" moments. Cannavale steals practically every scene he's in, and when Giamatti, Tambor and Cannavale are together on screen, it's unexpected gold. Things slow down when we're not with the wrestling team, and the film sometimes meanders with some "down time" by setting its sights on more hard-hitting issues like domestic abuse and proper child care. Give McCarthy points for trying to bring a little weight to his character-based sports comedy, but in this case the funny stuff simply works best.
'Win Win' is like 'The Blind Side Lite,' which isn't a bad thing. By the time the ending rolls around, it's nice to see that McCarthy doesn't opt for a completely conventional wrap-up. While some script polishing and a little more time spent with the wrestling team would've made it more audience friendly, as is 'Win Win' definitely accomplsihes enough to entertain and inspire, which makes it a winner in my book.