“I just tell myself that the other
guy is trying to shove my head down and kill me. So I say whatever the fuck it
It’s a crying shame that school boy
wrestlers don’t have a pro league of their own to aspire to but this ultimate
don’t get no respect sport gets a shot at major league comedy in Tom McCarthy’s
sweet/sad moral parable Win Win. Set, where else, in the morally slippery
slopes of New Jersey the story is kick started by the attempts of a schlemiel
to survive the Great Recession. As we meet him Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is
drowning. A family law court attorney/high school wrestling coach whose fees
can’t cover his nut and whose boys are forever gazing up at the gym banner
proclaiming, “You’ve been pinned,” one day in court Mike decides to layoff his
conscience and accept a hefty guardian’s fee to keep a dementia afflicted old
guy out of a state home. Instead Mike pockets the money, sticking Leo Poplar
(Burt Young) in a small furnished room without his daily ration of Coco Puffs.
Neither Mike nor Leo realizes that
Leo has a grandson. One day a bottle blond, sixteen-year-old feisty little punk
named Kyle (real life wrestler/first time actor Alex Shaffer) shows up on the
stoop of Leo’s now abandoned bungalow. Now Mike needs another kid like he needs
a second head but as his jogging buddy Terry (Bobby Cannavale) points out he
sure could use a talented little wolverine boy wrestler, who was a state champ
in his native Ohio before mysteriously disappearing from competition.
No sooner does he don the togs than
Kyle proceeds to wreak havoc in his weight class (119 to 125 pounds) even
convincing the team’s skinny, wisecracking mascot, Stemler (David
Thompson) to suit up for the first time in competition.
Kyle’s winning streak is fueled by
his “whatever the fuck it takes” motto and, as he confides to Mike, the sense
that when he’s in the wrestling circle he’s in control, a feeling he hasn’t
experienced with the adults in his life, as evidenced by the shiner he wore on
his first day in New Jersey. Gradually the boy lets down his guard, opening up
to his surrogate new mom, Mike’s no nonsense wife Jackie (Amy Ryan). The
emotional tussle between these two characters is a small comic gem – watch for
the moment when the veteran Ryan executes a bravura double take the first time
Kyle calls her “Jackie, ” or the special pride she take in matching tattoos
with Kyle, displaying her Jon Bon Jovi ankle initials, matching the boy’s angel
wings. Even as he’s being domesticated in the Flaherty’s recreation room
basement, Kyle evidences a festering inner rage, indicating that he holds the
power to balance the movie’s moral scales.
Mike’s “Win Win” is suddenly
threatened when Kyle’s mom and Leo’s daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), a fresh
out of rehab drug addict, with a violent live-in boyfriend (the author of
Kyle’s black eye) shows up to claim the boy, Leo and the money.
Tom McCarthy’s comedies are like
filmic enactments of The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s wildly popular
Ethicist column, and perhaps the closest an American filmmaker has come
recently to the spiritual ambitions of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s
human philosophical films, described by one critic as “testaments to the
serious beauty of ordinary life.”
In The Station Agent, a
lonely dwarf receives a completely unexpected invitation to rejoin the human
race from the most unlikely trio of friends in a isolated New Jersey backwater
community; in The Visitor a grieving professor reconnects to life by
selflessly helping a trio of illegal aliens navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth
of post 9/11 immigration regulations. In both films the male protagonist
follows the example of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character in Rohmer’s My
Night at Maud’s by pursuing intimate but thoroughly chaste relationships
that help unlock some vital blocked piece of their humanity.
Win Win’s equally sexless
but rigorously physical boy wrestler universe -- reportedly inspired by the
high school wrestling adventures of McCarthy and childhood friend Joe Tiboni,
who shares story credit – causes grown up childish men Mike and Terry to cop to
their nostalgia for their own wrestling days, while at the same time owning up
to their responsibilities to their frisky charges.
McCarthy’s impeccable casting and
pairing of the novice Shaffer against brilliant pro actors allows this
physically talented boy to flex his fledgling acting muscles in scenes where he
intimidates the bodies and pricks the consciences of three shifty adults.
My joy at watching Win Win’s straight
boy wrestlers led me to recall our own Jim Provenzano’s challenging tale of gay
boy New Jersey Wrestlers Pins and how the new digital film world might
finally be ready for this queer moral fable.