Trying to please a crowd needn't be a shameful business. Tom McCarthy makes light comedies that notice the goodness and hospitality in unlikely people, yet stop short of sentimentalising them.
In The Station Agent (2003) a diminutive loner comes out of his shell to make friends. In The Visitor (2007) an uptight professor reaches out to a displaced couple in New York and accidentally discovers he's got rhythm. His latest, Win Win, is as tender-hearted as his first two, but with a more interesting moral hinge than either: a man does a dishonest thing, which inadvertently has good consequences.
Paul Giamatti might have been born to play a McCarthy hero, that is, the type who feels the cares of the world on his shoulders and quietly resents every minute spent hoicking them around. He plays Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey attorney and family man with a long list of to-dos. He needs to deal with the rotten tree, which his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) fears is about to crash into their house. At his office he needs to fix the boiler that's been making ominous knells from the basement, and the toilet that keeps blocking. He also needs to stop having panic attacks. When his young daughter asks her mom where dad is, she replies, "Out running". "From what?" the kid asks, wiser than she knows.
What Mike is trying to outrun, like so many others in our post-meltdown era, is debt. Not a crippling sort, and not the sort he cares to tell his wife about, but serious enough to put him on edge. He and his hangdog accountant Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor) seem to sublimate their woes by coaching the local high-school wrestling team, though given how often they lose it's hard to see the benefit. The plot clicks into gear when Mike is offered a way out of his hole: he becomes the legal guardian of an aged client, Leo (Burt Young), who's in the early stages of dementia but wants to live at home. Mike pockets the $1,500 per-month maintenance and parks old Leo, who doesn't know the difference, in a posh care home. His scheme threatens to unravel when the old man's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up, having fled his druggie mum and her "asshole" boyfriend. With his bleached hair, tattoos and monotone (near-monosyllabic) voice, Kyle doesn't look ideal lodger material for Mike and Jackie, whose first instinct is to lock him in the spare room: "We have kids, Mike. I'm not taking any chances with Eminem down there."
But appearances are usually deceptive in McCarthy's world. Kyle is gentler than he looks, bonds with his grandfather, and sweetly asks Jackie if he may accompany her to the supermarket. The real doozy for Mike, though, is that the kid just happens to be a bona fide wrestling champ. Can they induct him into high school and get him on the team? You bet they can. Wrestling isn't a sport much featured in movies, and from the pained, crablike contortions of the participants you can see why, yet Win Win shows how it inspires not just the boys but the adults: Terry (Bobby Cannavale), Mike's best friend, has been a sadsack since his divorce, but Kyle's knockout moves so enrapture him he begs Mike for the post of assistant coach. The team starts winning; it might even have a shot at the finals. It's like The Blind Side without the pious shrillness and Sandra Bullock's grandstanding.
Much of the film is so amiable and charming that you keep wishing that McCarthy was just a bit tougher on himself as a writer. One notices a tendency, particularly in the early stages, for a scene to end on a weak line; it needs to be a little punchier. Also misguided is the notion that saying "crap" or "holy shit" counts as hilarious wit. (In the recent and awful Your Highness the word "fuck" became a virtual punchline).
As a director McCarthy could afford to be more expansive in his layering of scenes; he could trust more to silences, especially when he has a cast as good as this. An audience will love a film more when they are credited with the nous to interpret things rather than merely watch them.
He is brilliant with his actors, though. Giamatti's worrywart decency plays off Amy Ryan's more hardheaded practicality; you believe in the way their fundamentally solid relationship has to cope with a sudden inflammation of distrust. Alex Shaffer, a real-life high-school wrestler who hadn't acted before, is tremendously touching as the close-mouthed Kyle; he seems to know his voice rasps like a goose, and perhaps his sparing use of it is a mark of civility. His pre-match ritual of asking Mike to slap him hard on the head is passed off as an amusing tic, yet it possibly also hints at the violent homelife that made him run away. (He turns up in New Jersey with a fading black eye). McCarthy cleverly uses the ritual later when Kyle's friend Stemler (David Thompson), a lanky geek and the worst wrestler on the team, asks the coach to give him a slap, too, only "not quite so hard".
Yes, the film pulls its punches a little in the moral denouement. Mike could – and perhaps in real life would – get a sharper comeuppance for his deception, and the fractured familial relations might not be patched up quite so philosophically as they are here. But so what? McCarthy knows his characters and likes them, and somehow he ensures that we feel the same way. I'd say that's a win-win.