WIN WIN—-who does Exasperation better than Paul Giamatti? He can do it as a slimeball (The Ides Of March, Duplicity ), a beleaguered and principled President (John Adams), a savvy promoter with a heart of gold (Cinderella Man) or as a lonely schmo who isn’t big on Merlot (Sideways). He can also do it with a nervous, hopeful grin and staccato groan-growl while mixing a batch of those types together (i.e. a regular person) as in this winning (had to say it) 2011 dramedy, written & directed by Tom McCarthy.
McCarthy, who we can thank for The Station Agent and The Visitor, has a genius for telling tales of the troubled and doing it with the just right mix of smiles and sentiment. He also has a genuine feel for the overlooked beauty of the ordinary and portrays middle-class characters without condescension: his screenplays don’t feel like they came out of a crystal bowl of catered cocktails beside a swimming pool in Beverly Hills. He likes his people, and he lets you like them through behavior that’s recognizably faulty, foolish and fair instead of reworked shallow setups for pratfalls. Paired with with The Great Giamatti, we have a Match of Two Mensches, in 106 tickling and real minutes as ‘Mike Flaherty’ (Giamatti) tries to juggle life slices without breaking them to pieces.
His low-scale law practice struggling, Mike moonlights as a wrestling coach, guiding a team that needs, well… as much help as they can get. Trying to run a fast one on a court-appointed client ends up with the client’s alienated grandson (Alex Shaffer) as Mike’s ward. The kid happens to a helluva grappler…then his deadbeat mom shows up from rehab.
Gently funny, touching without clogging up your good will canal, it hits all the right notes for an audience pleaser, yet despite strong reviews, a surefire plot line and a modest $5,000,000 budget, the film only found ticket sales of $12,000,000. Another time the crowd missed out.*
Great supporting cast: Amy Ryan (strong and charming), Bobby Cannavale (disarming), Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lyskey and Margo Martindale. McCarthy had been a high school wrestler in New Providence, New Jersey, where the film is set, and young co-star Shaffer was in actuality a wrestling champ from the very same Garden State: kismet on hand.
*Win Win just got shuffled in the deck as 2011 was a flush year for comedy: Bridesmaids, The Descendants, Carnage, Crazy Stupid Love, Cedar Rapids, Midnight In Paris, The Guard and The Artist.