23 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: WRESTLING WITH ETHICS

Tom McCarthy, an actor of little particular note turned indie filmmaker of some considerabl note indeed, has a weirdly precise shtick that has worked extremely well for him in the past: build a low-key, character-driven drama/comedy with quirky situations but not quirky humor around an immensely talented but traditionally underserved character actor, once every four years. First, there was The Station Agent, the only film that has ever quite figured out what to do with the incredibly talented Peter Dinklage, which just for good measure gave Patricia Clarkson one of her best roles in the early '00s; second, there was The Visitor, which gave Richard Jenkins his meatiest part ever, and Hiam Abbass the best English-language role of her career.

And now we come to Win Win, which has an okay but hardly exceptional "prickly but loving wife" role for Amy Ryan, a funny sidekick role for Bobby Cannavale, parts that are much too small for Jeffrey Tambor, Margo Martindale, and Burt Young, and a real humdinger of a leading part for Paul Giamatti. God bless McCarthy for getting Giamatti, and Giamatti for doing such good work with the character - it's as fine as any other acting job he's done since Sideways - but you know what we, as a filmgoing culture, don't really need? More avenues to see Giamatti. Which is nothing against the film itself, but the defining trait of McCarthy's films to this point has been their feeling of discovery and revelation, and learning that Paul Giamatti can play a self-loathing sad sack who tries to become a better person is, whatever its charms, not revelatory.

More importantly, Win Win is all in all a much fuzzier movie than anything McCarthy has done before, without so much of a keen awareness of place and social context, and it suffers from a script that's purring along oh-so-nicely for about the first two-thirds, before the conflict jumps up a notch and the film goes from generous and comfortably small to slightly - just slightly, mind you - grotesque. Absolutely none of which is to say that it's not a good movie, but it's not a great movie, and that is something both The Station Agent and The Visitor absolutely were.

Win Win is about a lawyer, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), in a financial death spiral: and this leads him to do something very stupid, very unethical, and only legal because there's no way to legislate against being a dick. Mike has been representing a doddering old man, Leo (Young), trying to protect his assets during a trial to judge his competence. Mike makes what is is plainly a spur-of-the-moment decision, and offers to act as Leo's legal guardian, which entitles him to $1500 a month. Except that, not wanting to bother with the considerable challenge of keeping an old man hale and well, Mike chucks Leo straight into a nursing home, lying that it's the court's order that he does so.

Right about now, Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up to visit his grandfather, but really because he's sick to death of his selfish, unloving mother and her asshole boyfriend; seizing on a chance to combat his bad karma, Mike offers to take the boy in and help him find his way. And then this, too, turns into a chance to become a user - it so happens that Mike is the coach of the high school wrestling team, and Kyle was formerly one of the top wrestlers in his state. Partially to give the boy something to do, and partially to give himself a winning team, Mike manages to get Kyle enrolled in the school and on the team, and slowly but steadily, things look like they're getting better for everyone: for Leo, who has a loving family member in his life for the first time in 20 years; for Kyle, surrounded by caring, supporting people; and for Mike, who not only has a chance to to good, but even manages to reconnect with his own family.

And then Kyle's addled mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) comes to town, fresh out of rehab and flat broke.

It's here that Win Win starts to break down, turning unreasonably melodramatic and being nastier to Cindy than it has to - she is the first major character in a McCarthy film treated with such harsh judgment - and the curtain-closing moment is much too easy and pat for the relative complexity of the script up to that point. It's nowhere near enough to ruin Win Win all by itself, but it is usually the case that stories with an excellent beginning and a bad ending rankle more than the other way 'round, and this works to the film's disadvantage. There is, again, too much good will built up by this point to make the film a complete washout - we like Mike and want to see him succeed, and notwithstanding his shabby treatment of Cindy, McCarthy is far too much a humanist to punish his character just for existing, so the pleasing ending is right in keeping with what feels true to the film, regardless of its contrivance and the (I daresay) Hollywoodish feeling of its forcible having cake and eating it.

So, it is the weakest of McCarthy's three screenplays; so too is it the weakest of his three directorial efforts, capturing little of the spirit of New Providence, NJ (and just because that's a place that really exists, doesn't make the name any less preciously symbolic) and generally looking awfully flat and indifferent. Everything is in a uniform shade of drab, and while there are stories that can support that kind of choice, Win Win doesn't have one. The bright side is that bland visuals aren't really a problem; it's first and foremost an actors' showcase, just like all of McCarthy's films, and it works extremely well on that front: even when the plot starts going to shit, all of the people in front of the camera are doing superlative work, especially Giamatti, Ryan, and Shaffer, an amazing find: the teenager was cast in part because he was himself a champion wrestler before blowing out his back, and this is his first performance, though you wouldn't know it. It's undoubtedly easy for a teenager to act mumbly and aloof and disengaged, but there's doing that, and doing that in a meaningful and compelling way, and given that most of his co-stars outside of maybe Cannavale are doing pretty much what they do, it might even be the most striking performance in the movie.

All in all, it's pretty slight stuff, of course: excellent performances of good characters in a story that's not as rich as it apparently believes itself to be does not equal cinema gold. But it's still immensely satisfying to watch a movie that has this much affection for its characters while still making a point of calling them on their bullshit. It's a tremendously minor strain of American filmmaking for adults that needs to exist, and right now, McCarthy does it as well as anybody out there.

7/10

3 comments:

Robert said...

Very nice review. I've described this movie as one you watch and think "I like all these characters. I hope nothing too bad happens to them." And it doesn't.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

You just sort of nail it right there with that entire review. Even, though I love Amy Ryan's performance a great deal the movie is good but not great, it meanders about, it's unnecessarily harsh on Lynskey's character, the third act peters out more than a little, but ultimately it's okay.

Christina Strigas said...

I nevereven heard of this movie! Thanks for the info. Too bad all the Blockbuster videos closed...Did you ever review Biutiful? I think that's how it is spelled? It is a movie that you could write a book about!