Thomas McCarthy is an infinitely interesting director: he is an indie auteur loved not for his cerebral trickery (ala Nolan or Aronofsky), his lofty ideas (ala Malick or Jarmusch), his faultless filmic memory (ala Scorsese or Tarantino) or his cold, technical prowess (ala Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, in that order) but rather for his heart; this trait and this divide have never been more prominent than than they are here in his latest picture Win Win.
It’s a film all about family dynamics and in particular fatherhood, it follows a man on the brink of despair – wracked by debt and a mid-life lack of focus – and the underdog sports team that pulls him back onto sturdier ground; It’s Big Daddy meets Happy Gilmore but what separates it from those films is that the execution is all Funny People. Ok, so for many people a comparison to Adam Sandler movies is not a very encouraging metaphor to make (even in the third case), but my point is that though all of these elements have, quite obviously, been seen before it’s never quite been like this, never quite with this much maturity.
So on its surface Win Win is a pretty generic piece of film-making, more akin to some currently playing crowd-pleaser than any of the works of those aforementioned auteurs, than any of those pieces of ‘serious cinema’, but any such perspective is no doubt a perniciously deceived one. While a synopsis of its characters and themes may make this movie sound simple and familiar, for the most part this is not the case; it just so happens that the stories McCarthy as an individual is interested in authoring are those everyone else is interested in hearing.
Most importantly though is the fact that each individual moment is treated with the utmost care and so they all manage to transcend the obvious cliches that they could otherwise call to mind. Yes it’s another underdog sports movie – though the first I’ve seen about High School Wrestling, what a ludicrous sport! – but if the film is able to get you emotionally involved in the plight of these gym court gladiators then why does it matter what has come before? If anything it is more of an achievement to make these beats matter in 2011 than it it is to make a high-concept piece equally as interesting.
It kind of feels like I’m failing to sell this film a little in the midst of my schizophrenic approach so I’ll try to stop harping on the false-negatives. Yes, it sounds so very pat but Family is key to this film and it really nails it: you get these people and why they’re together and the time you spend among them is really enjoyable. A lot of this comes down to the actors: Paul Giamatti is just Paul Giamatti (Read as: Wonderful) but Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale are the stand-outs, both giving surprisingly charming supporting performances, though really everyone is good.
Narratively speaking the film is deceptively complex; though the outline feels familiar the way each story moves into the next is near entirely unpredictable and there is a real joy in going along for the ride with this family. The ending however feels a little rushed; resolution is dealt out to characters seemingly at random, some given it others not, and there were a couple of plot threads that were building up through the first two acts that simply dissapeared in the third – The boiler, for one – and though what we do get is superb these lacks are a little awkward.
Overall though this is a story that only these two men could have written – McCarthy co-wrote with an old buddy with whom he used to wrestled with in High School, an old buddy who then went on to become an Elder Care lawyer – and only McCarthy could have made work. Without him it would have been an Adam Sandler movie, it would have been rote and tired but instead its hilarious and heartwarming; and if that’s not the markings of an Auteur then I don’t know what is.