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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this excellent indie dramedy offers lots of wisdom, examining characters caught at the crossroads of mid-life through clear lenses that are refreshingly unburdened by clichés. Yes, there’s plenty of swearing ("f--k," "s--t," etc.) and some mature themes -- including a mother's drug addiction, which sends her teenage boy adrift, hungering for structure and safety. But there are also plenty of stand-up characters who, despite their flaws, make you believe in a world of hope and optimism.
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What's the story?
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a good guy. A lawyer with a struggling practice, he’s intent on supporting his wife (Amy Ryan) and kids, encouraging the forlorn high school wrestlers (they don't win) that he coaches after work, listening to his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) ride the emotional roller coaster of his recent divorce, and protecting the interests of his too-few clients. Still, money’s been tight, so when a paid opportunity to be the guardian of Leo (Burt Young) -- a retiree in early stages of dementia -- presents itself, Mike steps into the role. He thinks it ought to be fairly simple: He’ll take the money but put Leo into a home, where he’ll be cared for properly -- never mind that Leo isn’t too keen on the idea. Then one day, Leo’s teenage grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up on his grandpa’s doorstep, eager to get away from his drug-addicted mother. And he’s a champion wrestler, too. Kyle's appearance is a complication that adds to the list of responsibilities weighing heavily on Mike’s already weary shoulders.
Is it any good?
Director Tom McCarthy knows exactly what to say and how to say it; WIN WIN is confidently told, and every moment informs another to come. Mike looks like he’s running strong in the first sequence, and we think all is well -- clearly, this is a self-improving man. But soon enough we see him gasping in the dust of surer-footed sprinters. At work, the boiler tolls like a doomsday bell. All is not well. The men in this movie are struggling -- and so are the women. And though their struggles are familiar (the economy, divorce, work boredom), the way they struggle is delightfully unexpected.
And that's not just because Giamatti plays bereft without any cliches and Ryan does an excellent job as a supportive wife without the usual treacle; the rest of the cast is pretty awesome, too. At many junctures, Win Win could have taken a losing (or boring) turn, but it just refuses to. A lesser movie would have had Mike take his scheme further into slapsticky territory, or the troubled Kyle hook up with a classmate who brings formulaic joy to his life, or Terry bed Mike’s secretary as a way to fish himself out of his post-separation disquiet. But leave that to the amateurs and unimaginative.
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