The last couple of years have not been very good to the independent film scene. Not too long ago, Hollywood pundits predicted a sea change in the Hollywood landscape as indie films became widely embraced by mainstream audiences and they began to generate big box office. It got to a point where every major Hollywood studio created an independent division to get in on the game (examples: Warner Independent, Fine Line, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, etc.). Unfortunately, the global economic downturn hit the indie scene hard as investment money dried up for independent films. However, it seems that recently we are beginning to once again see a return of strong independent films. Last night, I had the fortune of seeing one such film that, with better marketing, can turn into a huge box office hit. WIN WIN is a wonderful, feel-good movie that, although it doesn’t break any new ground in storytelling, easily ranks as one of my all-time favorite Paul Giamatti films.

Paul Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a struggling solo practitioner who’s unable to keep his practice afloat and pay the bills to support his wife and two kids. Along with his business partner (Jeffrey Tambor), he moonlights as a wrestling coach for the local high school, whose wrestling team is going through a big losing streak. Through some ethically questionable business dealings with one of his clients (Burt Young), Flaherty ends up getting $1,500 a month to be his client’s legal guardian even though he’s not really doing anything to take care of him. One night Flaherty stumbles upon a runaway and troubled teenage boy (Alex Shaffer), who is Flaherty’s client’s grandson and who also happens to be a star wrestling athlete of his high school. Seeing a big opportunity, Flaherty recruits the teen to wrestle for his struggling team while allowing the teen to live with his family. Things appear to go smoothly until the boy’s rehabbed mother shows up to take the boy back. Suddenly Flaherty’s life begins to unravel and he has to deal with it all.

Thomas McCarthy is an actor, writer, and director who made his writing/directing debut with the excellent THE STATION AGENT in 2003. He followed it up in 2008 with THE VISITOR and now he has WIN WIN (NOTE: He also wrote the screenplay for UP). McCarthy’s films tend to be about people who for various reasons cannot find happiness and eventually find it among the most unlikeliest people and under unlikely circumstances. In WIN WIN, Mike Flaherty has a happy and healthy family, but despite all that, he’s unhappy. Like many Americans during the recent recession, work is tough to come by and with that comes a smaller income to work with to pay the bills. Flaherty is an unhappy man who’s unable to cope with his problems or find any viable solutions. The answer to his dilemma (at least the dilemma concerning his wrestling team’s losing streak) comes in the form of a runaway teenage kid who just happens to be a wrestling rock star. The problem with many indie films that attempt to be quirky is that the script comes up with too many far-fetched scenarios that are not only ridiculous, but they prevent the audience from sympathizing with any of the characters. Not so with McCarthy’s screenplay. Although the chances of some strange family adopting a troubled youth who just so happens to be a wrestling star is an unusual circumstance, its not so implausible for anyone to roll their eyes at. Also, the screenplay so effortlessly threads all the subplots together seamlessly that none of these surprise moments jar you in a bad way.

Paul Giamatti was born to play grouchy, loser assholes. He’s certainly got the face for it and by now he can pull off these types of roles in his sleep. In WIN WIN, Giamatti’s Flaherty is not so much of an asshole as he is a down-on-his-luck, stressed out individual who tries to deal with his financial situation without success. You immediately feel for this character when you see that he’s just a regular joe trying to live the American Dream. He’s an unremarkable individual who’s not a successful lawyer and neither is he a successful wrestling coach. And for that, you feel sorry for him. Giamatti understands this character perfectly. With those round, popped-out eyes of his, he frequently stares out at the world like he’s saying, “Great, what the fuck am I to do now?” Because of this, you don’t mind that he decides to lie to a judge that he’s going to take care of an elderly man to get a monthly guardian allowance when he really isn’t. He’s at the end of his rope and its all that anyone like him can think to do. In a state of desperation, this is what he does instead of robbing a bank or hanging himself from a rope. A final note about this character is that I appreciate the filmmaker deciding to show that not all lawyers make a shitload of money, even after many years of practice.

WIN WIN contains many outstanding performances besides Giamatti’s. Newcomer Alex Shaffer plays the runaway teen, Kyle. The character is a contemplative man who doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he does, he’s to the point and decisive. His skater, quiet demeanor hides an intelligence and talent that comes to the delightful surprise of Flaherty and his family. However, Kyle also hides a dark past and Flaherty realizes that simply adopting the boy and making him win championships for his team isn’t going to erase the impending problems that will soon arise when his missing mother comes looking for him. I wouldn’t say that Alex Shaffer is a great actor because his character doesn’t require a whole lot of acting range, but Shaffer still manages to pull it off nicely and make you like the character.

Rounding out the supporting cast is Amy Ryan, who plays the protective den mother/wife of Flaherty’s. Bobby Cannavale is Flaherty’s bachelor friend and who also provides most of the film’s comic relief (he’s especially good when playing off of Tambor’s character) The perennial Jeffrey Tambor plays Flaherty’s business partner and co-wrestling coach, who, as always, is great. Finally, we have ROCKY’s Burt Young as the kid’s grandfather and Flaherty’s client. Everyone at the screen does an amazing job, especially Amy Ryan, who goes from initial skeptic toward the teenager to protective adoptive mother and the teen’s biggest supporter. The dynamics among all the characters feels natural and, as a result, the humor that arises from the various situations is organic rather than forced or scripted.

WIN WIN is an honest, sentimental, and humorous sports/family film that truly is a feel good movie in the best sense of the term. McCarthy’s script pulls all the elements of the film together nicely and he makes it look so damn easy! I was especially impressed with how he took a character like Flaherty, who has done a despicable and unethical thing to an old man, and present him without making you hate him. You completely understand the choice that he makes and that is a pretty sizable accomplishment from both the director and Paul Giamatti. WIN WIN reminds me a lot of Sandra Bullock’s THE BLIND SIDE, which ironically enough was nowhere near as authentic-feeling as WIN WIN despite Bullock’s film being a true story. THE BLIND SIDE attempts to manipulate its audience with the emotional undertones of the movie and as a result it feels fake. WIN WIN has the same exact premise (wrestling instead of football) and it pulls off what THE BLIND SIDE could not in spades. WIN WIN is a highly recommended film that I can say with absolute confidence that it will not disappoint you in the least way.

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