2011 // USA // Thomas McCarthy // April 20, 2011 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Chase Park Plaza)
Thomas McCarthy's films don't promise adventurous formal cinema or profound explorations of challenging themes. They are Sundance-friendly characters studies first and last, befitting the works of an actor-turned-writer-director. While the stories McCarthy tells aren't exactly formulaic, they do rely on familiar dramatic elements as guideposts, steering the viewer through outlandish social landscapes (dare I say "comedic situations"?) strewn with emotional and ethical hazards. The Station Agent and The Visitor were both chock-a-block with indie funny-serious tropes, and both suffered from their share of screenplay speed bumps. Yet there is something appealingly off-center and restive in McCarthy's sensibility, a kind of recoil from contrived behavior and storybook tidiness that flows from an actor's studious observation of humanity. Ultimately, this quality results in films that favor the sorrowful, the confused, and the ambiguous, at least to a greater extent than comparable indie offerings.
The director's latest film, Win Win, is pitched in a more comedic register than his earlier efforts, complete with slightly cartoonish companions (Terry Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor) for its standard Sad Sack protagonist, here embodied by ur-Sad Sack Paul Giamatti. Following two stunning lead performances from lesser-known actors in McCarthy's previous films (that would be Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent and Richard Jenkins in The Visitor), Giamatti's presence here is almost too fitting, lending the film a regrettable whiff of artistic conservatism. Alas, this is symptomatic of Win Win's larger approach, which favors the simplicity of stock characters and situations to a somewhat wearying degree.
Still, it remains a slippery and engaging film in several respects. High school wrestling is a pivotal element of the story, and the film even engages in some generic clichés--including a training montage!--but, strictly speaking, it cannot be regarded as an Underdog Sports Film. Unexpectedly, the film is revealed as a kind of morality tale centered on Giamatti's small-town, hard-luck estate lawyer / high school wrestling coach, Mike Flaherty. Another character is held in reserve to serve as a shrill antagonist, but the real villain here is Mike himself, who in the first ten minutes makes a moral blunder that slowly unravels over the film's duration. At first, this offense seems to work to Mike's advantage, as it not only garners him a much-needed paycheck as an elderly client's legal guardian, but also said client's troubled grandson (a marvelously cast Alex Shaffer) as a ringer for his objectively awful wrestling team. Needless to say, it doesn't work out as Mike would hope. The film has its share of wounded souls, but in contrast to McCarthy's prior works, Win Win is less a tale of emotional healing and discovery than a straight-up (albeit lighthearted) tragedy, one that unfolds at the intersection of obligation, selfishness, and humiliation.