The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Win Win
Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer don't realize their no-win situation is about to become Win Win.

I love all kinds of movies, but there is a particular kind I love the most: good, character-driven comedy/dramas where likable-yet-flawed individuals try to work through emotional crises. Admittedly, that probably sounds like a pretty broad category (the kind Netflix often makes up on their recommendation page, come to think of it). Good examples include Sideways, Garden State, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine. Apparently someone at Fox Searchlight has the exact same taste that I do, because all those movies come from the distributor, as does Win Win, the newest to fit the category. I could also cite The Station Agent and The Visitor, both of which are the product of Win Win writer/director Tom McCarthy.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a small-town attorney who also coaches high school wrestling on the side. Mike is having panic attacks thanks to the financial woes he's been hiding from his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan). In an act of desperation, he compromises his principals by asking a judge to appoint him legal guardian to one of his clients, an old man named Leo (Bert Young) who has Alzheimer's. Mike puts the man in a nursing home and cashes the $1,500/month stipend that is supposed to be paid for his in-home care.

Mike's attempts to rationalize this behavior to himself are only partly successful, but he ultimately thinks he can get away with it. A threat to his cover arrives in the form of Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the old man's troubled teenage grandson who shows up, having just run away from his druggie mother and her abusive boyfriend. He wants to live with his grandfather but can't, due to the fact that Leo is no longer living in his own home. The Flahertys end up taking the boy in temporarily, and when it is revealed that Kyle used to be a star wrestler, Mike enrolls him in school and puts him on the team. Suddenly, the squad starts to win a few matches.

Win Win is a story about what happens when you do something bad and then try to do something good to make up for it. Mike doesn't like what he's doing with Leo's money, but he figures that if he can help Kyle have a better life, it might somehow make everything okay. As he unexpectedly grows closer to the boy, keeping the secret under wraps becomes more complicated. When Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up with an agenda of her own, it gets harder still. Part of what makes Win Win so compelling is that Mike is continually looking for a way to even out a situation that progressively spins out of his control. As the story unfolds, he gains awareness that his little "fudge" has an actual human cost. Paul Giamatti is outstanding in the lead role, effectively showing us the toll Mike's desperation takes on him. For a guy who was trying to relieve some stress, he ends up making a lot more of it.

While undeniably engrossing as a drama, Win Win also has many moments of comedy, most of them revolving around the wrestling team, which Mike coaches with two eager assistants (Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale). Kyle is a natural, and he gives a shot of confidence to the whole squad, including a fellow wrestler who seems to be afraid of the sport he's chosen to participate in. Much of the humor in the wrestling subplot comes from the fact that Kyle's success on the mat is part of what feeds Mike's delusion that he can soothe everything over.

Alex Shaffer makes his screen debut as Kyle; he's a champion wrestler in real life, so his moves feel authentic, and that absolutely benefits the story. But he's a skilled actor too, creating a kid whose confidence has been buried beneath a lot of familial dysfunction. Kyle is the quintessential teenager who could have the world at his fingertips if not for the anger built up inside of him. The scenes between Shaffer and Giamatti go to some emotionally interesting places. We know Mike is better for Kyle than his mother, but is that good enough? Win Win takes us on a ride with both of them, their fates intertwined for better or worse. The irony of the title is that Mike is looking for a win-win situation, but unless he can find a way to navigate some treacherous waters, it's going to turn into a lose-lose. Because the actors make us like them, we actively don't want to see that happen.

As with the movies I mentioned at the start of this review, Win Win hits the perfect balance of drama and comedy. It is populated with characters that seem like people you might actually know. The situations are identifiable, even if the specifics aren't. We've all done something to benefit ourselves that ended up putting someone else in a bad way, just as we've all sought to atone for screwing up. Tom McCarthy has crafted a terrific human story with enought patience to allow the audience to observe the tiny moments that eventually create a big impact. Funny, touching, and beautifully acted, Win Win is definitely a victory in humanistic storytelling.

( out of four)

Win Win is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.