Lawyers, sons and money: Win Win ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2011)

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Back in my wintry Alaskan radio days (back in the 20th Century) there was a corny old one-liner that I wasn’t too proud to recycle once or twice as a weather forecast zinger:

In fact…it is SO cold, that as I drove past the courthouse this morning on my way to work…I spotted a lawyer who actually had his hands in his own pockets.” (SFX rim shot)

I don’t mean to insinuate that a “lawyer” is, by definition, an opportunistic, self-serving type;  what profession doesn’t have its “bad apples”? There are a lot of straight-shooting idealists out there practicing law. But I think we can all agree that that there are very few attorneys  who have never met a loophole or “gray area” they couldn’t eyeball from outer space-with their glasses cracked.

You get a vibe that attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the lumpy middle-aged protagonist of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s new film Win Win, likely began his law career as one of those straight-shooting idealists. He’s an amiable fellow and a solid family man who devotes a good portion of his free time coaching the local high school wrestling team. There’s a noticeable deficit of statuettes in the trophy case, but Mike and his assistant coach (Jeffrey Tambor) try to keep up the positive reinforcement.

It’s too bad that Mike can’t turn some of that positive reinforcement back onto himself. While out for a morning jog with his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), he suffers a full-blown anxiety attack. Once the paramedics leave, Mike sheepishly opens up to his concerned pal (also an attorney) about the financial worries that have been keeping him up nights. Mike also confesses that he’s envious that Terry has amassed a relative fortune through his own successful law practice. Terry does his best to empathize, but as he is still reeling from a recent divorce, he’s anxious and depressed himself.

When one of his clients, an elderly man named Leo (Burt Young) is declared legally incapacitated, Mike comes up with a brainstorm for turning this “loss” into a “win win”. In order to pull it off, however, Mike will have to dive headfirst into one of those “gray areas” that I referenced earlier. After a brief wrestling match with his conscience, Mike offers himself to the court as Leo’s legal guardian. Leo can continue to live in his own house, and Mike will check in on him.

The judge raises an eyebrow, but grants him guardianship. So how does the “wrestling with his conscience” part figure in? Mike is fudging just a wee bit…and his wife (Amy Ryan). He actually intends to put Leo in an elder care center (a nice one, of course), so he won’t really be fussing with taking care of him, per se. Oh-and he’ll sort of “pocket” the monthly $1500 stipend Leo’s estate pays him for being a guardian. But, as long as Leo is content, and Mike is making some extra money to help support his own family, everybody wins-right?

Mike’s scheme runs like clockwork-until a potential spanner in the works named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) rolls into town. He’s Leo’s teenage grandson, who, despite his taciturn nature (quick to deflect any questions about his parental situation) ingratiates himself with Mike’s family-especially after he turns out to be a gifted wrestler. Mike can’t believe this streak of luck. But as they say-no good deed goes unpunished. Enter Kyle’s estranged mom (Melanie Lynskey), just out of drug rehab, armed with an attorney and looking for a steady income (like the $1500 a month she could get if the court appointed her as Dad’s legal guardian). Mike’s streak could be over.

In the hands of a lesser team (McCarthy co-wrote with Joe Tiboni), this narrative that could have descended into turgid family soap. But luckily, this is Thomas McCarthy, the actor/director who also helmed The Station Agent and The Visitor. A true “actor’s director”, McCarthy coaxes pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast.

It’s refreshing to see Giamatti underplay a role for a change; he’s a fine actor, but has been known to ham it up. It’s an outstanding turn, especially in his scenes with newcomer Shaffer (admirably holding his own with the seasoned players). The development of their relationship is central to the story, and neither of them hits a false note. Ryan is a wonder to behold as always; I think she remains a sorely underutilized talent and needs to be offered  a leading role immediately, if not sooner. Touching (but never maudlin), funny (without mugging) and genuinely heartwarming, this is a must-see.

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