Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Premise: A lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) takes on the guardianship of a wealthy client and later takes in a homeless teenager (Alex Shaffer) who is very skilled at wrestling.
What Works: Win-Win is part of a crop of recent films such as The Company Men and Up in the Air that can be categorized as recession cinema. Like some of these other stories, Win-Win is about people struggling with their conscience while attempting to survive in a difficult economic climate. What these films do, and what Win-Win does especially well, is to create drama that comes directly out of the conflict between what is right and what is necessary and confronting the characters with situations that confound the two. Win-Win is led by Paul Giamatti as a lawyer struggling in his practice. Although he has the beneficent goal of aiding and representing the vulnerable, his character struggles with the fact that lawyers who serve society meek out a living along while those who represent the corrupt are often rewarded. He sees an opportunity to cash in on one of his clients by manipulating the system; even though no one is hurt, the actions of the character are at least ethically questionable. The film’s dramatization of this is done very well and it addresses the ethically murky territory without evangelizing to the audience. By setting up Giamatti not as a bad hearted crook but as a man who is trying to catch a much needed break by playing the system, the filmmakers set up the audience to empathize with his character. This is done successfully because of the skill with which the script, the director, and the actor present his decision and the way in which the act slowly unravels in his life, raises dueling tensions in the audience. Because we like Giamatti’s character and empathize with him, viewers will not want to see him get caught but most audience members will also recognize the obvious ethical problem and the conflict the audience experiences in Win-Win is very interesting and provocative. When the client’s estranged grandson shows up, Giamatti’s character takes the boy in and again the film sets up another dual tension. The film plays on legal and conservative conceptions of family, in which the boy should be with his mother but she is proven to be unfit. This inverts the conflict of Giamatti’s legal swindle, so that now the traditional and the legal might be unethical. The way the grandson fits into Win-Win is very smart storytelling; the teen is troubled by his unstable family experience and he is grasping for some stability and control, which he finds in the wrestling ring. The performance by Alex Shaffer is great; like the rest of the film he is understated but after several scenes it is clear that there is an awareness and intelligence about the character and his scenes with his mother have a lot of dramatic weight to them that plays out the broader tensions of the story.
What Doesn’t: The ending of Win-Win might be seen as a cop out, especially in comparison to the darker endings of similar films. The film allows for quite a bit of consternation and drama as the truth percolates to the surface but the consequences of the truth are not as severe as we are led to fear. It is a satisfying ending and it is the right one for the tone of the film.
DVD extras: Deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, trailers, and a music video.
Bottom Line: Win-Win is an intelligent and interesting film but it’s also emotionally satisfying. The performances are subtle and insightful and it’s a smart story that raises some rich ethical questions.
Episode: #371 (January 8, 2012)