I had a conversation the other day with a friend where I complained that Tom McCarthy’s films are too easy. I like both The Station Agent and The Visitor to an extent, but beyond their overwhelming (and sometimes sickening) sweetness, I felt that the protagonist and side-characters overcame their obstacles without a certain degree of difficulty required for true suspense.
With this in mind I went to see Win Win. This film follows up on his previous two thematically. An outsider is welcomed into a family dynamic. This outsider is an anomaly. A dwarf in The Station Agent, an old man trying to recapture his youth in The Visitor, and now a stoic teenager in Win Win.
Also, as in all McCarthy films, the “family members” (whether a true family as in The Visitor and Win Win, or a community/family as in The Station Agent) gradually sees through the gruff and closed exterior of the newcomer and expose an interior that is rich, heartfelt and good.
Does any of this make you want to puke? No? Well then stop reading.
Part of my problem with Win Win is not that the newcomer – in this case Kyle (Alex Shaffer) – overcomes his obstacles too easily, or that the co-protagonist Mike (Paul Giamatti) overcomes his too easily. It’s that the situation is too convenient and that Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) are too welcoming and too gung-ho. They play like a stereotypical 50s nuclear household, whose fights are easily forgotten, where the father is the sole bread-winner, and the wife has just enough spunk to make her domestic-yet-fiercely-motherly comments heard.
Win Win has a lot of great things going for it. The actors are awesome. The camera is solid (though boring). And at least once it defies expectations. There are also three really great scenes.
Plot: Mike’s law practice is struggling and the high-school wrestling team he coaches sucks. He decides to lie to a judge that he will keep a client of his in said client’s home, puts the client in a nursing facility and pocket the caretaker money. He doesn’t tell his wife about any of the above. Kyle shows up. It’s his grandfather in the nursing home. Kyle’s mom is a drug addict. Kyle is also an incredible wrestler.
More good (that’s almost bad): there’s a scene where we first see Kyle wrestle. We already know he’s good. Cue the inspirational music. I’m thinking, ‘great, now I know he’s going to win. Thanks for killing any suspense.’ And he does win. I hated it. BUT…McCarthy turns this technique on its head and fools us. Later he sets the stage the same way: big match, same music, same cue…but Kyle loses. Thwarted! Well played.
Jackie has an emotional moment at the end that is very well-played. Kyle has discovered Mike’s conniving plot involving his grandfather. Kyle is getting ready to leave. Jackie and Mike come into their basement where Kyle is staying to convince him otherwise. Nothing doing. On their way up Jackie stops, turns to Kyle and says “We love you.” She says it angrily. It’s very well acted and directed. This could easily be a misstep had she said it sadly, wearily, hopefully, etc. But her tone is just right. It’s a more difficult moment to make work than might seem onscreen but actor and director nail it.
Back to my problems with the film: Kyle is gruffly endearing, and he is just a kid, and Mike and Jackie are already parents, but the situation still doesn’t sit well. We realize early on that Kyle’s mom, Cindy (Melanie Lynsky) is an addict, but also that she’s greedy (just in it for the money). Still, Mike and Jackie’s motivations for keeping Kyle are never justified beyond paternal/maternal instinct. Too easy.
There’s a critical beat in the film towards the end where Kyle basically has to decide whether to forgive Mike or not. SPOILER: he does. The beat is a silent one. It comes right after the “We love you.” I understand the motivation: he’s never been told he’s loved before, he’s never been treated so well, this place is like home, etc. But on the other hand, Kyle even says that Mike lied to him just like everyone else has. What makes this different? Can’t we imagine his mother lying to Kyle and following it up with an “I love you”? Why does Kyle forgive Mike? I didn’t buy it. There needed to be more.
The end of the film – the final few shots – are so idyllic and, wait for it, easy, that I’m annoyed. I won’t give them away…though I bet you can guess what they are.