Thomas McCarthy is one of those jobbing actors who pops up from time to time in second banana roles both on TV ('The Wire', 'Ally McBeal', 'Boston Public') and in movies ('Meet the Parents', 'Syriana', '2012'). As a film-maker, however, McCarthy is anything but a second banana. The excellent 'The Station Agent' (2003), a film that gets better with every viewing, marked his debut as writer/director. Four years later, he wrote and directed the equally memorable 'The Visitor', which offered Richard Jenkins the role of his career. Now McCarthy is at it again with another quirky drama that marries a wonderful cast to a simple but moving story.
In 'Win Win' Paul Giamatti plays a smalltown attorney with an ever dwindling client list and an office that just might be about to fall down around his ears (literally, there's a dodgy boiler involved). His ongoing struggle to make ends meet is resulting in panic attacks and his stress levels aren't helped by the fact that the high school wrestling team he coaches are a bunch of no-hopers. Just as all looks lost, a dubious "arrangement'' with one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), offers some salvation, and things begin to look up when Leo's moody grandson turns up and just happens to be a dab hand at the Greco-Roman art of wrestling.
In lesser hands, 'Win Win' could have been one of those emotionally manipulative tales so beloved of US daytime TV. That it's not, is a testament to McCarthy's skill as a director and his eye for casting. It's hard to imagine anybody other than Giamatti delivering such a compelling performance in the main role, particularly when called to account for some morally dubious choices. The always excellent Amy Ryan is equally impressive as the long-suffering wife, while both Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale score well in supporting roles. The real find of the piece, however, is young Alex Shaffer. It might look like a small role (he doesn't even turn up until the second act) but the character of Kyle, the moody teen who finds salvation in the wrestling circle, is central to everything that happens on screen. It was brave of McCarthy to entrust such a key part to a newcomer (albeit a genuine wrestling champ) but the risk paid off in spades.
If there is one mis-step, it's the performance of Melanie Lynskey in the role of Kyle's drug-addicted mother. Lynskey is a fine young actress but she doesn't invest her role with the emotional depth required. That's a small quibble for a fine drama that deserves to find a large audience.
We’re a long way from Oscar night but Paul Giamatti has just thrown down the first gauntlet.