Win Win, 2011.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young and Jeffrey Tambor.
Mike Flaherty’s loss-prone high school wrestling team picks up a new star athlete. The means by which Flaherty acquires him, however, are morally dubious.
Win Win opens on Mike Flaherty’s (Paul Giamatti) morning jog. “Where’s daddy?” his daughter asks, as the film cuts back to his wife waking up in bed at home. “He’s running”. “From what?” she innocently replies.
It’s easy to sympathise with someone being short on money during these strained times. It’s even easier when Giamatti plays that someone. He’s the ultimate down-on-his-luck everyman. He’s even better than William H. Macy, because Giamatti has a backbone. A slightly curved and hunched backbone, maybe, but a backbone nonetheless.
You know how you have leading men? Well, Giamatti is a leading man, but for a specific kind of film. He’s a leading broken man. He has the demeanour of an oft-punched pillow. His hunch nears obtuse angles because of the weight on those chunky, ungroomed shoulders.
Money is tight. The boiler at his legal practice bangs and screams like an unruly toddler. It’s one of the jobs Flaherty has been putting off, along with a tree in his front garden. It could fall into the house if a strong enough wind hit it. But it remains there, like an ulcer in his mouth.
Probably to take his mind off things, Flaherty volunteers as the head coach for the local high school’s wrestling team. Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale) make up his deputies. Vigman works with Flaherty, and is a reliable, if a little dull, assistant coach. Vigman shows no interest in the team until some new kid shows up.
To ease his financial burdens, Flaherty houses Leo, an elderly client of his who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, in a home to receive the council’s monthly maintenance rewards. This is against Leo’s wishes (he wants to remain in his own home), but Flaherty deceives him enough to keep him quiet. He has lied, but Leo is in comfortable accommodation and has the proper care. Flaherty receives an extra thousand bucks a month for little work. It’s a grey moral area.
But then one day some kid turns up at Leo’s house. It’s his grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Flaherty lies to him, too, and takes the kid in. He’s there because he has run away from his mother. A dark bruise on his eye is enough exposition there.
Alex Shaffer was a successful amateur wrestler in real life, and this is his debut role. He’s befittingly monosyllabic for a teenager and has a voice devoid of all inflection. Wooden, some might say. Perhaps. But this is a characterisation impossible for an actor. Robert Bresson never used ‘actors’. Weren’t real enough, he’d say. He used ‘models’. Real people who repeat the actions he tells them to so much that it becomes automated. Shaffer looses his footing a little with the more emotional stuff, but for pure teenage indifference, he’s perfect.
So Kyle comes along one evening to wrestling practice. Nobody’s seen him wrestle in these parts yet. The team are green and wrestle like wet towels. Kyle’s turn comes around, and he body slams his opponent into the mat after a neat reversal of a hold. “W-would you mind telling the team what you did there, Kyle?” Flaherty asks, stunned. Kyle says that he imagines he’s drowning, and that his opponent is the guy that’s keeping his head underwater, so to throw him off, he does whatever the fuck it takes. “Whatever the fuck it takes,” Flaherty repeats in awe and admiration. It becomes the team’s unofficial motto, and sums up the pragmatism vs. principle debate that runs through the film.
The crux of Win Win is that bad deeds can have good outcomes, if done with the right intentions. In fact, the occasional bad deed might help us along becoming better people, for they are rarely without their consequences. You learn from them.
Flaherty, when we meet him, has stalled and life is overwhelming him. His boiler makes a racket. His chest is succumbing to stress. Money is tight. There’s that tree that tilts dangerously over his house. Flaherty needs this bad deed, this reboot, this darkest hour, to overcome his debilitating pressures.
Really, he just wants to be in control again. Financial problems have a way of making you feel like that. You don’t have a handle on things anymore when you’re in debt.
But he sees this kid, this champion amateur wrestler from another state, who’s in complete control of his craft. He may have fled his mother, and his grandfather has Alzheimer’s, but when he’s on the mat, he’s in control. “This is your place,” Flaherty screams at him during one pep talk, shaking, on the verge of tears “this is your place. You control it. Remember? You control it.”
Whatever the fuck it takes.
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