Here’s what you should do. You should watch “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and the new “Win Win” — three very good movies, unconnected save for being written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, that depict strangers being kind to one another and in the process becoming friends. Even as the least consequential part of the trilogy, “Win Win” is funny, humane, and uplifting, the sort of smart entertainment that makes you happier than you were when you started.
It stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a tiny practice in a medium-sized New Jersey town. Mike mostly handles unsexy things like wills and trusts, and he barely does enough of that to support his family. His wife, Jackie (the wonderful Amy Ryan), stays home with their two young daughters. Money is tight. The plumbing in his office needs repair. He moonlights as coach of the high school wrestling team and fears he might have to work part-time as a bartender, too.
He finds a solution, albeit an ethically shady one, when an elderly, almost senile client named Leo (Burt Young) is declared by the state to be incapacitated. Mike has himself appointed Leo’s guardian so he can get the monthly stipend from the state. To avoid actually having to do any guardianship, puts Leo in a cheery assisted-living facility. There you go, problem solved, everybody’s happy.
Ah, but Leo has a grown daughter in Ohio whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years, and that daughter has a 16-year-old son who suddenly shows up in New Jersey wanting to meet and spend time with his grandfather. The kid, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), has a fractured relationship with his deadbeat mom, and might be more like a runaway than a visitor. Since his grandfather is in a nursing home rather than his own house, Kyle has no place to stay. So Mike and Jackie take him in, just for now, just until they can figure things out. It’s the only decent thing to do.
Kyle is sullen the way many 16-year-old boys are, and he’s been in some trouble, but he’s essentially a good kid. As luck would have it, he is also a champion wrestler, and Mike’s team desperately needs someone good. And once again we encounter McCarthy’s favorite themes: flawed strangers cross paths, discover that they can help and be helped by one another, grapple with their natural tendencies toward selfishness and dishonesty, and ultimately do what’s right.
McCarthy employs a number of realistic touches, not least of which is the very believable marriage of Mike and Jackie. Giamatti excels at playing characters who are hapless and put-upon, while Ryan is great as scrappy, feisty women. Together, they’re a terrific combo: Mike wearyingly accepts that taking care of Kyle is simply what must be done; Jackie’s maternal instincts, steeped in New Jersey belligerence, make her want to claw out the eyes of anyone who would neglect a kid the way Kyle’s mother has done. Warts and all, these are a fine couple of parents.
Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, is not a professional actor, though he is a high school wrestler. His performance is amazingly unaffected and natural, delivering raw emotions when they are called for and hilarious indifference the rest of the time. Burt Young (who really ought to be cast as Paul Giamatti’s father sometime) has some nice moments as the senile Leo; Jeffrey Tambor is great as Mike’s caustic assistant coach; Bobby Cannavale earns laughs as Mike’s jogging buddy and over-enthusiastic wrestling booster; and the always reliable Margo Martindale (you’ll know her when you see her) shines in her few scenes as another attorney.
The film lets some of its characters off the hook a little too easily, maybe wraps things up a little too neatly, probably falls victim to a few cliches that it was trying to stay on top of. Mike’s anxiety attack at the beginning is never referred to again, having served its purpose in the movie by conveying to us that Mike was stressed. Kyle inspires his wrestling teammates in a predictable fashion. But the movie’s success rate is admirably high: the character-based comedy is perceptive and resonant (and funny), and the relationships between all the characters ring true, even if some details are indie-movie contrivances. It’s hard to resist the warmth of the film’s suggestion that there is cause for optimism as we muddle through our ordinary little lives. These characters are muddling through theirs, too, and they’re mostly doing okay.
B+ (1 hr., 46 min.; )