SXSW Review: ‘Win Win’ Doesn’t Win Us Over

By  · Published on March 31st, 2011


Director Tom McCarthy is back with his third feature film, following the incredibly well received and reviewed films The Station Agent and The Visitor. I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen neither, but based on reactions from trusted colleagues, I have no doubt they are both great films. Unfortunately, Win Win didn’t bowl me over. It’s a fine film that has a good deal of warmth and charm, but it just doesn’t cross that line from good to great.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a typical family man. He has a nice home, a loving wife, and a few adorable kids. He spends his time working in a private law practice and coaching the local high school wrestling team. But lately the work has gone from steady flow to trickle. The office needs a new furnace, the kids need food and clothes and the mortgage isn’t going anywhere, but the money is starting to dry up. Mike reaches his breaking point, unable to tell his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) about the financial troubles and admit to what he sees as a failure as the provider, and decides to take advantage of a situation with an elderly client. Leo Poplar (Burt Young) has been deemed incapacitated by the court and despite his strong desire to stay in his own home, he’s going to have to be moved to an assisted living facility. Leo has no family to speak of, only a daughter he hasn’t spoken to or heard from in years. Mike tried to track her down but hasn’t been successful. But when his secretary mentions that Leo’s estate provides a $1,500 a month stipend for his guardian, Mike sees his way out. He agrees to become Leo’s guardian and tells the judge that he will take care of Leo, allowing him to remain in his home as per his wishes. The judge grants the motion and Mike starts drawing the checks. But he puts Leo in an assisted living facility anyway. While it sounds mean-spirited, Mike has nothing against Leo. He’s just an average man driven by financial insecurity to do things he’d never do under normal circumstances. Everything changes when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), show’s up on the doorstep.

Win Win is sort of a product of the times. I wonder how future audiences will react to Mike’s decisions. While he’s clearly making mistakes, his thought process isn’t unrealistic given our current economic situation. While you might well look on his choices as wrong, it’s hard not to see how he could easily come to that point. Times are hard for a lot of people right now and the lack of steady work and money combined with rising costs can spell doom for many families. Mike’s actions make sense in the context of today’s economy, but it will be interesting to see if that rationalization will hold up in 10 or 20 years.

The movie has a pretty stellar cast starting with the always great Paul Giamatti in the lead role. Amy Ryan, from The Office, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor round out the faces you’ll recognize, but it’s the lesser known teen actors who really shine. In particular Alex Shaffer as the disaffected Kyle and David Thompson as the goofy Stemler really stand out. They feel like real kids instead of smarmy 20-somethings shoehorned into high school student roles. It’s refreshing and lends the film an extra layer of authenticity.

The biggest problem with Win Win is that it feels a little like quirky indie comedy paint by numbers. Plot points aren’t completely telegraphed but they’re not exactly news either. It’s a weird form of deja vu where you weren’t necessarily thinking about it but when it happened it felt like you knew that’s what was going to happen. Comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine aren’t entirely apt, but there are a few moments that feel similar. That said, Win Win is doing its own thing, but it’s just not different enough to feel entirely original.

In the end, Win Win is a good film but not a great one. It has plenty of wit and charm and heart-warming moments. It’s well acted, well shot and well paced. It just doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the myriad of other indie comedys. It is an enjoyable and entertaining film that provides a good deal of laughs along the way.