Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Win Win – A Feel Good Reality Check

Paul Giamatti is on a roll these days. Here’s another lead role that carries a movie of wonderful warmth and charm. In this case, the timely story of a struggling lawyer who takes legal charge of an old man, suffering dementia, in order to earn his monthly caretaker's stipend, and ends up inheriting care of his grandson, whose wrestling prowess revitalizes the whole town.

The theme: how to seize control over one’s life against the everyday forces that keep us down – whether they be the economy, uncaring parents, or one’s own fears of failure. Giamatti’s lawyer, Mike Flaherty, is struggling to feed his family, trim the dead tree in the yard, and keep the heat on in his office in eye of the Great Recession when the opportunity comes along to earn an extra $1,500 a month. It’s not a lot, but just enough to make a difference. All he needs to do is bend his ethics a little bit and lie to the judge in order to receive custody of the old man, and his monthly stipend.

But as soon as he does, into his life walks the man’s grandson, Kyle. Kyle has problems of his own – his mother is a druggie who deserted him – and he’s come to live with the grandpa, whom Mike has surreptitiously moved out of his house into a nursing home. Mike and his wife (played with Jersey flare by Amy Ryan) takes in the wayward grandson and slowly coaxes him out of his shell and onto the wrestling floor (Mike happens to coach the high school team). Mike and Kyle are clearly kindred spirits and each begins cheering each other up. When Mike and his friends discover that Kyle is actually a wrestling star from Ohio, a secret weapon for their home team, everyone begins to find their passion again; it even looks like this losing team could go to the finals.

But it’s a relationship built on a lie – Mike told the judge grandpa wouldn’t be put into a home – and even before Kyle’s mother comes back into the picture, we can see where this plot is going.

Yes, it’s a kind of Breaking Away story, using sports as a metaphor for self respect, and we’ve seen a version of this movie every decade or so. But what makes this story rise about the predictability is how perfectly rendered the characters are – both by the script and the actors – and how much we fall in love with all of them, and want everything to work out. (Shall I also confess that, like Kyle, I’m from Ohio, and like Mike, I live in New Jersey, and so I also related to the little details of local color?) Mike is a bit devious but he’s also a stand-up guy – he sincerely cares about his charges as a coach and worries about his family. Kyle is just the opposite: all cool, tattooed teenager and superstar jock, but hiding a sensitive, non-judgmental heart. It also inverts the typical plot, making Mike the hero and Kyle the foil – and so it’s the younger teenager whose cool stoicism and sincere openness wins the hearts of those around him; he’s the sturdy center of the movie who needs to be won over by the imperfect adults, and who has to teach the older men about self respect and rising above tough times. It works.

I was skeptical about this movie at first. Shlubbing around seems to be an occupational hazard for Giamatti characters (casting Jeffery Tambor as his assistant coach doesn’t help that impression), and his best friend – a typical divorced Jersey dude played by a middle-aged Bobbie Cannavale – is a bit of a type. But newcomer Alex Shaffer, as Kyle, brings exactly the right kind of sweet dudeness to counteract this bunch (Fast Fact: Shaffer used to be a high school wrestler). What’s so interesting is how intimidating the middle-aged shlubs seem to the kids, and how intimidating the athletic kids seem to the middle aged middleweights. Everyone has something to learn.

That everyone does so is of course a bit corny, but such sentiments in these trying times are not such a bad thing. Through their tiny acts of taking in strangers, showing kindness, and showing respect, each of these characters helps the others just enough. Us Jews have a saying for this accumulation of tiny kind, personal gestures – tikkun olum, or “repairing the world.” This movie does exactly that in its own, sweet way.

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