WIN WIN presents Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a decent man and an honest lawyer beetling through life with financial worries that he meticulously keeps from his adored family. Keeping it in has given him episodes that arent quite heart attacks, but are enough to alarm his best friend, Terry (Bobby Canavale), into calling an ambulance. Faced with a dead tree on his lawn at home, a furnace that is threatening to explode at his office, and not enough legal business to keep his one-man firm going, he makes an unethical choice that seems not only foolproof, but wont hurt anyone. Mostly. The result will be a golden opportunity dropped into his lap, and a situation that could result in professional catastrophe, and possibly worse. He will fail to recognize the former right away, and he will convince himself that the latter wont come to that. Until it does. And then things get really complicated.
The decision involves a guardianship fee paid by the estate of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a man in the early stages of dementia and no longer able to live on his own. Leo, whose court-appointed attorney Mike is, diligently tries to find Leos only relative, a daughter that disappeared 20 years ago, and is all set to turn his client over to the State, and the cushy assisted-care facility where the State will send him. During the hearing, Mike impulsively petitions the court for conservancy Leo, promising that he will respect Leos wishes to remain at home, something the State does not have the resources to do. Leo, who may or may not know the difference, still goes to the facility, and Mike gets the fee and is able to remain solvent. Best of all, his family is none the wiser. At least thats the plan. In what turns into a double-edged stroke of fate, Leos heretofore unknown grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on the doorstep, sending Mike into paroxysms of improvised scheming, fast-talking, and the astonishing discovery that the kid from out-of-state with the weird hair and sullen attitude is the key to success for the high school wrestling team that Mike coaches with dismal results. He also discovers that the kid gets to him, and to his wife, and his adorable six-year-old daughter, and even the baby, who includes the kids name as one of her first words.
In this third film written and directed by Tom McCarthy, the characters are once again richly drawn, complicated, and completely captivating. Mikes fellow coach and office mate, Vig (Jeffery Tambor), is a mournfully dyspeptic CPA fretting over a failed relationship with his offscreen step-son. Terry is a financial whiz with too much money and wife who left him for the contractor working on their dream home, who fills the hole in his heart with a peculiar but oddly not creepy, bromance with the kid. Mikes wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan) is a tough cookie with a big heart that is an extension, not at odds, of her desire to beat the crap out the people who screwed up the kids life.
Tiny moments, and McCarthys way of letting his camera remain still to allow a long look in precisely composed tableaux, define people with startling clarity. The way Terry and Vig vie over who sits next to Mike at a wrestling meet. The way Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Kyles mother, dressed in clothes from the juniors department, dissolves into tears over her estrangement from her son with a vulnerability that is difficult to watch and snaps vitriol over how her own father treated her. Giamatti is the star, both in billing and performance, though. He makes Mike a man who cannot quite find his balance in a life that has not turned out the way it should have. Every move after the initial lapse nudging his center of gravity just a little further off-center. The wheels turning furiously in Mikes brain are all but visible beneath the poker face that reveals the stress building to geyser-like proportions with just the barest bulging of the eyes and merest flicker to intimate the puckering of the brow. This is a career-defining performance.
By the time WIN WIN has spun its morality tale, it has dwelled not on right and wrong, as such, but rather on the power of second chances given and received. This is a scathingly intelligent film with none of the coldness that can attach to the cerebral. It begins with a stained-glass angel falling from a window, followed by a consideration of the seemingly endless shaded meanings that can be coaxed out of a scatological exclamation, which is a fine way to sum up the films way of working with both the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous, and blending them into a comedy that is resoundingly profound.