'Win' Wrestles With Conventional Morality

Photo: Role model. Paul Giamatti as Mike mentors Kyle, the grandson of one of his clients. In Thomas McCarthy's 'Win Win,' they cement their bond over a common interest in wrestling.
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy
Role model. Paul Giamatti as Mike mentors Kyle, the grandson of one of his clients. In Thomas McCarthy's 'Win Win,' they cement their bond over a common interest in wrestling.

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The promotional poster for "Win Win" - Thomas McCarthy's 2011 Sundance submission - suggests a very predictable film. From the image of Paul Giamatti and a towheaded teenager sitting on gym bleachers, dressed respectively as coach and wrestler, you could conclude that this is an offbeat wrestling movie. But this judgment is insufficient: "Win Win" is not a quirky underdog sports flick but a traditional fable wrapped in indie clothing. The film is effectively a moral parable of reconciliation: Normally decent people make bad decisions with the best intentions, and then must shoulder the weight of their poor choices until they make amends.

"Win Win" follows Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a struggling elder-care lawyer and father in suburban New Jersey, who part-times as a high school wrestling coach. In a moment of desperation disguised as professional compassion, Mike poses as the caregiver of one of his clients for the extra money. This initial act tips Mike into a mire of family conflicts, to the point where he even houses his client's runaway grandson, Kyle.

What follows is the inevitable anxious percolation, where everyone seems to be getting along fine while the lie holds its breath, waiting to emerge. When that lie surfaces, Mike is forced to patch the professional and familial fractures he has caused in both his own and Kyle's family, with an almost ludicrous level of selflessness. But despite his great personal sacrifice, Mike appears happy with the way his problems have been resolved. The moral here says starkly: Do the right thing, no matter how much self-sacrifice you have to endure, and you will be happy.

The plot as a whole delivers its take on ethics in a way that never breaches the conventional structure of modest storytelling. Nor are its characters particularly impassioned or remarkable: In the opening sequence of the film, we witness Mike suffering through a domino effect of inconveniences, to which he can only force out an "oh shit," never mustering the moxie to go past "frickin' sucks." He is in no way criminal: His only vice seems to be cigarettes, smoking just one behind a convenience store dumpster after throwing the rest of the pack away. We see him driving his Subaru to church and plunging his office toilet, an average man spread thin over a variety of domestic and professional duties.

Judging by his performances in films like "American Splendor" and "Sideways," Giamatti is an actor capable of neuroses and sourness never utilized in "Win Win." Mike's general blandness shows the film's economization: Characters are mainly stand-ins to act out the plot, and the plot is essentially allegorical to the moral, which is given the highest priority.

While the plot devices are in part derived from high school wrestling, "Win Win" never becomes a hackneyed sports movie. Really, most virtues of McCarthy's "Win Win" lie in its moderation and resistance: It approaches the cliche and calmly steers away from it, although never into new territory. The audience is spared a triumphant sports montage, and there is no adorable indie score to accompany witty dialogue (although Jon Bon Jovi is credited in the soundtrack). But tactfully avoiding the predictable isn't enough to tell an original story, and ultimately, the film seems as if it were made with only mild didacticism in mind.

The plot elements are almost entirely homegrown: McCarthy grew up wrestling in suburban New Jersey with his friend Joe Tiboni (who developed the story with McCarthy), now an elder-care lawyer still living in his hometown. But rather than trying to profit from the untapped "indie high school wrestling movie" market, "Win Win" reconfigures these personal elements into lite ethical education. There's nothing remarkable about the film's style or story, but this only serves to frame the parable in a subtle way. At best, "Win Win" is the film that your parents would read to you before you went to bed: an easy-to-swallow moral lesson that is familiar enough to be nonthreatening.

Send Amelia your favorite sports montage at [email protected]

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