Writer-director Tom McCarthy doesn’t make great movies, but he makes movies about people I enjoy spending time with.
Scoff all you want at McCarthy’s stubbornly middlebrow The Station Agent or The Visitor, but these are both formula Sundance flicks elevated by endearing performances from bravura, always-welcome character actors. So it goes with Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti as a sad-sack New Jersey lawyer, struggling to make ends meet and succumbing to a bit of extra-legal document deception, placing him ostensibly in charge of Burt Young’s surly septuagenarian.
This hulking mass formerly known as Paulie just so happens to have a wayward runaway grandchild (Alex Shaffer) who is a bona fide wrestling prodigy. All’s well that ends well for Giamatti, as he already coaches the worst high school wrestling team in the entire history of the sport.
There is a brief spell during which Win Win starts to feel like the greatest potty-mouthed underdog sports comedy since Slap Shot or The Bad News Bears. McCarthy knows how to use his actors, and having Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor and the ever-effusive Bobby Cannavale coach a hard-luck gang of scrawny Star Wars nerds practically writes itself. The camera hangs back, regarding these three men in awesome long-take widescreen compositions, with entire wrestling matches taking place upon their sublime comic reaction shots.
Sadly, there are bigger fish to fry. Courtroom shenanigans eventually interfere, with Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey showing up as an outraged junkie mom demanding custody and chewing scenery, while Justified’s Margo Martindale does a much smoother job layering in the menace. Blah, blah, blah.
As with every McCarthy movie, the fun is in the character interactions. Giamatti is brilliant as the beat-down, flummoxed straight man. Cannavale is over-the-top and over-compensating for his recent divorce by becoming insanely hyper-excited about every single thing that happens onscreen. Meanwhile, Tambor is just jealous. It’s a killer combination, and there’s also room for Amy Ryan as Giamatti’s tough-minded, spitfire wife, who has a Bon Jovi tattoo on her ankle that she’d like to tell you about.
I kind of wish McCarthy had just made a straight sports picture, because these characters are so entertaining that he didn’t actually need to make a mawkish reach for relevance.