Win Win - Cinema Review

'McCarthy is a master of subtle action vs reaction plot building. There's no grandstanding here, no melodramatics, no sudden and convenient changes of character'

Hardly a departure for writer/director Thomas McCarthy, Win Win has serious overtones of his previous films The Station Agent and The Visitor. Like his previous works this simple story, of a small town lawyer who finds himself becoming the guardian of a client's grandson, is warm-hearted with significant comedy undertones and oodles of realist-leaning underplay.

Like a typical McCarthy film, the dramatic triggers are all small events. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling lawyer. When his business threatens to go under he doesn't rob a bank or start dealing drugs or do one of several other inevitably-doomed and ill-advised actions; he simply bends the rules, albeit to near breaking point. McCarthy is a master at this sort of subtle action vs reaction plot building. There's no grandstanding here, no melodramatics, no sudden and convenient changes of character. When Mike's wife (a tremendous Amy Ryan) spots a mistake of his she doesn't pack her bags and walk out - that's not her character - she just tells him he's a fucking idiot.

Mike's idiocy hangs over the film like a waiting executioner, one of Win Win's few flaws. McCarthy telegraphs the inevitable reveal and flirtation with tragedy from early on and many will spend part of the narrative contemplating the time of its arrival. Luckily, the director fills the gaps with a cast of delicious characters who provide enlightening entertainment. Bobby Cannavale returns from The Station Agent as Mike's slightly smarmy best friend who sits outside his ex-wife's house for entertainment. He is the cross between the child Mike ends up looking after (Alex Shaffer) and the adults in the film, the fun-loving character who has lost his joy de vivre. First timer Shaffer is complex and quiet and is, most of the time, more than adequate in his role as suppressed wrestling protege. Giamatti, always a generous on-screen presence, is back to Sideways-best form, allowing Ryan, Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor to steal scenes only to pull the significant ones right from under their feet.

Despite its predictable plot arc (something which The Visitor didn't have), Win Win proves once again that McCarthy has few equals when it comes to quiet, small-town American drama. His locations and themes (from the effects of recession, to adulthood vs kidulthood, to motherhood, to forgiveness and recovery) are all well realised and explored within an unobtrusive mantra which puts characters first. The humour of the script is muted but prevalent and McCarthy's dialogue feels both recognisable within his world and pleasantly character-specific. The film is another in a short line of great but little-seen productions from a director who deserves to find both a larger audience and a larger awards cabinet.

Look further...

'Tom McCarthy is the humanist that cinema needs. A comedy that can make people laugh without resorting to monkeys smoking cigarettes and frat-boy antics is truly something worth smiling about' - Never Mind Popular Film, 4/5


  1. Excellent stuff!! I wil definitely be off to see this when it hits our shores. I absolutely love The Station Agent!! It must be one of the films I have seen the most over the years.
    I liked The Visitor as well. So if either of these films are anything to go by I will like this new offering. Mmmmmm I'm smacking my lips already in anticipation!!!!

  2. I really like McCarthy. Very few people making films as quiet, as enjoyable and as cleverly made as his are at the moment. The worry is that, going forwards, he struggles with finance. Win Win has made just about $10million in the US and nothing really here in the UK. He's hardly a banker as far as studios are concerned.

  3. Hmmm...that is a problem. I like film makers like him because they are making things well out of the mainstream and well...just different. It would be a shame to see him disappear because of money.
    I love The station Agent and yet I can't get people interested in it. In my POTC review I said most cinema goers are sheep who'll follow the crowd. I'm lucky in Napier because we have an independant theatre that plays all these off beat quirky films as wella s araft of foreign language films. The sad thing is that more often than not there are only a handful of people who turn up to see them. If people aren't bombarded with promotions they aren't interested.
    Me I live for this type of film as it is a breath of fresh air from the CGI garbage Hollywood churns out year. Entertaining yes, but not truely great cinema is it!
    Do you like Woody allen? I'm a late comer to his work but I love him because he is so diffrent..its that breath of fresh air again!!

  4. I hardly know any Allen. It's a big gap in my film watching history. At some point I'll get round to the big Allen efforts.

    The dichotomy between independent type offerings like this and blockbusters is a long-discussed problem with no real proper conclusion. At the end of the day, as with everything, money will dictate that blockbusters get more advertising support, more cinema screens, more column inches and, therefore, more bums on seats.

    If a balance can be kept where people like McCarthy continue to work regardless of the above then I don't have a problem with that. When the balance isn't right though and film makers find themselves in the wilderness for years, that balance needs to be altered somehow.