'Win Win' Win

As time passes I like the movie “The Blind Side” less and less. You remember “The Blind Side,” the Academy-Award-Nominated film where a wealthy white family adopts a homeless black teen who becomes a superstar athlete.

Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for best actress just by changing her accent and hair color. This based-on-a-true-story movie felt inspirational and life affirming the first time around, but kinda starts to fall apart after repeat viewings.

Even if we set aside the pandering racial overtones, the movie reveals itself to be cloying and emotionally manipulative. I mention the shortcomings of “The Blind Side” only because they seem even more pronounced after watching “Win Win,” a delightful little movie that excels while using almost the exact same premise.

The sport in question is different, as we swap football for wrestling and instead of a kid being rescued from the ghetto by a rich family, we have a kid being rescued from an unfortunate situation by a middle-class family where another mouth to feed is actually a pretty big deal.

“Win Win” stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. Mike represents an elderly client Leo (Burt Young, best known for playing lovable scumbag Paulie in the “Rocky” movies) who is battling dementia and about to become a ward of the state.

Mike is struggling to make ends meet and decides to make the morally questionable move of becoming Leo’s legal guardian in order to draw a monthly stipend from the state. Not long after Mike deposits Leo in a nursing home, Leo’s grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up to live with his grandfather after running away from his druggie mother.

Feeling responsible Mike takes Kyle – in all his brooding, teenaged glory – home to his wife Jackie (the consistently fantastic Amy Ryan) and their two young daughters. While trying to decide what to do with the boy, Mike lets Kyle tag along to wrestling practice where it is revealed that Kyle is a wrestling prodigy. Kyle’s presence immediately raises the hopes of Mike’s hapless team, but the kid has a whole trunk-full of emotional baggage that the Flaherty family struggles to take on.

There is a lot to love about “Win Win” which combines a solid family drama with the elements of a fine sports movie and throws in some well-earned laughs along the way.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy helmed indie favs “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” along with co-writing a little animated blockbuster called “Up,” so the guy knows what he is doing. He lets the story play out at its own pace and smartly invests more time in the characters than in trying to build up the plot for a big, emotional payoff.


It also doesn’t hurt that he has a stable of terrific actors inhabiting all these characters. Jeffrey Tambor does befuddled with the best of them as Mike’s frazzled assistant coach and Bobby Cannavale gets a lot of laughs as Mike’s best friend who on the rebound from a divorce decides to throw his efforts into helping out with the wrestling team.

Giamatti and Ryan are fantastic as they both not only boast a shrewd sense of comic timing, but deserve praise for bringing one of the most honest and loving depictions of marriage seen on a movie screen in a while. Ryan is endearing as a no-nonsense Jersey girl who slowly warms to Kyle and eventually becomes his biggest supporter, and Giamatti might be at his best when his character is struggling with ethical dilemmas as you can practically see him playing out his options amidst his various hangdog expressions.

Even young Shaffer, who himself was a state-champion wrestler, holds his own with the seasoned actors and never once looks to be tangling above his weight class.

“Win Win” is just that, a charming movie that won’t make you regret praising it years later. There’s really not much more you could ask for.

“Win Win” is rated R for language.

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