Chicanery was one of those special words that manage to elude until this reviewer watched Win Win, a new Paul... err, Thomas... err, comedy drama starring Paul Giamatti, directed by Thomas McCarthy. In case the word has slipped past you too, it's the use of trickery to achieve a political, financial or legal purpose.
Win Win is the poster child for chicanery, as this offbeat comedy tells the story of Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), a small-time lawyer who uses the opportunity to be an old man's legal guardian in order to overcome financial pressure in a difficult chapter in his career. What starts as a quick fix soon becomes something of a mixed blessing as the elderly man's teenage grandson appears out of nowhere looking for a place to stay...
Giamatti is at home in this genre mix like a beaver in lumberjack gear. He's got the comic dexterity of a fire juggling clown and the dramatic climate of a priest on death row. He's a joy to watch, representing that ordinary everyman who's just a little too indistinct to have it easy. The irony being that his life is so beautifully inane that it makes it fascinating in a Napoleon Dynamite kind of way.
Thomas McCarthy only has three movie titles to his credit when it comes to direction, yet they're three of the best examples of this dramedy sub-genre to be found in recent years. The Station Agent was a quirky offbeat ensemble piece with Win Win stars Paul Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale. They obviously have a natural flair for these little comedy gems. McCarthy followed it up with something more Oscar-conscious - allowing Richard Jenkins to upgrade his signature supporting comedy character to something more poignant.
Win Win is tempered by McCarthy's experience from both of his previous films. As an experienced actor, it's clear that he knows how to draw the best performance from his cast, even from debutant, Alex Shaffer. The young wrestling champion was chosen primarily to play a derivative of himself after a successful high school wrestling career. The performance is true, a very "unHollywood" mix of aloof and complex without giving in to the notion that every high school kid fits into a category.
Amy Ryan and Jeffrey Tambor add their weight behind Win Win, giving Mike Flaherty some opportunities to grow as a somewhat likable character. A supportive wife and loyal assistant coach suggest that there's much more to him than the lingering chicanery. It's a rock solid ensemble effort that delivers a realistic balance between slice-of-life drama and offbeat comedy.
McCarthy has managed to capture those everyday moments in a way that makes them funny, engaging and locked down by real characters. Their circumstances are within the scope of everyday life... their environments aren't extraordinary and they suffer real-life consequences that aren't blown out of proportion. It's a breath of fresh air to have a comedy that flows naturally with one or two eccentricities.
One gets the impression that a Michael Cera type character would've been first prize, despite not being able to look as convincing in the wrestling arena. The comedy has a similar edge to films like Juno and it would have been interesting to see Cera starring opposite Giamatti. Although, sadly... two Arrested Development actors in one film will always be a distraction, unless it's the Arrested Development movie.
Win Win is an excellent specimen within the comedy drama department with a tweak of sport. It's the sort of niche film that will certainly appeal to fans of Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and Tom McCarthy's previous films: The Station Agent and even The Visitor. The wrestling angle makes it fairly unique and the storytelling wraps you up so that you feel compelled to keep watching even when it gets a little sluggish.
Win Win does starts to wane in the dying stages as the film rounds off its resolution. It's not as funny as Juno, as poignant as The Visitor. The cast pull together with stand out performances from Giamatti, Ryan and a promising debut from Shaffer. McCarthy has delivered yet another fine comedy drama as writer-director and the story has plenty of heart. Yet, it's just lacking that special spark to distinguish it as a film. Either way, it's still a win-win: a charming, amusing and fine example of film-making with a memorable collection of real characters.
The bottom line: Spirited.