As he’s proved in a string of films from Sideways to Barney’s Version, Paul Giamatti has a particular knack for portraying middle-aged men in crisis: he lets his characters’ flaws hang out on screen and we end up empathising with them all the same.
He plays another of his sad-sack losers in Win Win, a low-key but entertaining comedy drama from Tom McCarthy, maker of The Station Agent and The Visitor. Mike Flaherty is a small-town lawyer in suburban New Jersey who volunteers as a high-school wrestling coach (an odd sport, at least to British eyes, but one that crops up now and then in American popular culture, notably in the novels of John Irving).
Mike’s business and the wrestling team are both failing, but in trying to turn their fortunes around he risks sliding down a slippery slope of morally shabby compromises and deceits.
First he becomes the legal guardian of an elderly client with early-stage dementia (Burt Young); and the fee he gains from the deal is a lifeline for his struggling legal practice and family.
Then the old man’s troubled grandson (Alex Shaffer) turns up out of the blue, a teenage runaway in flight from his irresponsible druggie mother (Melanie Lynskey); and the boy turns out to be a talented wrestler. It looks like win-win for Mike, until the tiny deceptions he’s employed to get here start to unravel.
There are flips, bumps and falls before the resolution, and even if McCarthy ties up his various plot strands a little too neatly, the story will resonate with viewers suffering from recession blues. Besides, Giamatti is superb and there are excellent supporting turns from Amy Ryan (as Mike’s grounded wife), Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Canavale (as Mike’s friends and fellow wrestling coaches).
And Shaffer, a teenage wrestler with no professional acting experience, is as much of a find for the filmmakers as his character is for Mike: a winner on screen as well as on the mat.
On general release from 20th May.