With Win Win Tom McCarthy continues the same unforced, but highly perceptive, theme of redefining the family that marked his first two films, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). It’s also similar in tone and style, though it and The Station Agent are the more similar works. And that’s a good thing, since good as The Visitor is, I don’t think it’s quite as good as these two. I admit that assessment may be born from a personal preference for drama mixed with comedy, which there’s a larger mix in these two than in The Visitor. All three, however, work on the premise of unlikely people coming together in non-traditional extended families.
In some ways, I think this is McCarthy’s most wholly successful film, especially in the shrewdness of the way it goes about assembling its family. It starts with down-at-the-heels lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who actually has a family—wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two little girls. He also has a shaky legal practice (with a boiler that clanks ominously and could blow up at any moment), clients who don’t pay well, mounting debts and a dim-looking future. Everywhere he’s faced with impending disaster, and this doesn’t even take into account the perpetually losing high school wrestling team he coaches for free. Why does he coach them? Probably for the same reason he takes care of clients like the old man who thinks his cat has been kidnapped: They need him.
It’s through one of his clients—an old man named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) who is in the early stages of dementia—that Mike, in desperation, sees a way out. Seeing that he can pick up $1,500 a month by becoming Leo’s legal guardian, he has himself appointed and, in an uncharacteristically self-serving move, places the old boy in a nursing home. This works fine until Leo’s grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up wanting to live with his grandfather—and instead ends up living with and becoming part Mike’sfamily, which turns out to have the added benefit of the kid being an aces wrestler. And this works out till the boy’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up—with ulterior motives—to collect both her son and her father. What happens from there may not be surprising, but it’s remarkably satisfying.
A lot of what makes the film work lies in McCarthy’s well-drawn characters, all of whom have their own quirks and secret sides. Some of these—especially Mike’s friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who is maybe a little too interested in 16-year-old boys—actually are more surprising than the story’s reasonably predictable turns. But with this cast and these characters, even the predictable goes down very nicely indeed. Rated R for language.