Win Win immediately announces itself as the natural successor to actor-turned-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent and The Visitor. McCarthy very deliberately steers his alternately desperate or lonesome characters into each other’s paths, his quiet collisions challenging them to reach out, to make space in their troubled lives for unlikely, difficult, though finally rewarding alliances. But Win Win is where the filmmaker’s tendencies begin to look less like variations on a theme and more like formula—and somebody else’s formula at that. By shifting away from the somber warmth of the first two films into a sort of humanist comedy, McCarthy has, perhaps inadvertently, sacrificed what measure of tonal distinction his directorial approach had previously nurtured. The result is a perfectly likeable if belabored go-for-it movie that may very well get McCarthy his broadest audience yet, though few will likely walk away from it wondering about or even remembering who made it.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a Jersey lawyer, family man and high school wrestling coach burdened with enough problems (dwindling practice, losing team, clogged toilet, busted copier, falling tree, dying boiler...) that by the time he does something underhanded we’ve already forgiven him. Mike siphons some revenue out of an elderly client in the early stages of dementia played by Burt Young, an endlessly entertaining actor to behold when he gets pissed off. Along comes said client’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a teenager with an atrocious dye-job on the run from a bad situation in Ohio. Having just delivered Leo to a nursing home and unwilling to send Kyle back to an empty house (mom’s in rehab), Mike decides to take Kyle in… and soon discovers the kid’s a tiger on the mat!
You can see where this is going. Which, you know, is okay I guess, but it really takes a while to get there. There’s at least one utterly superfluous character here (Station Agent’s Bobby Cannavale, also with bad hair) and a half-dozen scenes that add precious little to the story or stakes, including an annoying paint-by-numbers mid-point montage set to Bon Jovi. The casting of Giamatti’s a no-brainer: save a couple of pep-talky scenes where he strains a little, he’s very enjoyable in another sympathetic shlubby bit. Shaffer’s so natural you almost don’t notice him. Amy Ryan as the take-no-shit wife gives Mike’s home life a little gravity and consequence: she works to fill each of her scenes with some sort of spark. It's clear that McCarthy has a special gift with actors—it’s just that Win Win feels too dependent on these actors to supply all the nuance.