Win Win is a character-driven film blessed with real characters. The people in this film are people we can believe in and care about as they face obstacles and deal with relationships in the best way they can. The film's writer/director is Tom McCarthy, who showed in his previous two films The Station Agent and The Visitor that he has a knack for blending humour and pathos in a low-key manner. His third film is cut from the same cloth and displays the same virtues that distinguished its predecessors. Chief among these is a tangible sense that McCarthy really loves his characters, and that sense of warmth permeates every corner of the picture. Even when his lead character Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) does something unethical, his actions are rooted in good intentions.
Mike is a suburban lawyer struggling to make ends meet who suddenly has a potential solution to his financial woes fall into his lap. One of his clients (Burt Young) has encroaching dementia and Mike, under the guise of rescuing Leo from life in a care home, offers to become the old man's legal guardian with his eyes on the $1,500 per month benefit payment that comes with the position. Once that bit of business has been settled, Mike moves Leo into a care home anyway while still pocketing the additional income and, for a while, that seems to solve his problems. Despite this deceitful behaviour, it's almost impossible to dislike Mike, which might have something to do with the fact he is being played by Paul Giamatti, one of the most endearing leading actors in the business. It's hard to imagine anyone else being so perfectly suited to the part; Giamatti is heartfelt and genial, and when he lies we see a look in his eyes that tells us how much he hates himself for it.
McCarthy is not a visual director, and Win Win is a very average piece of work in that regard, but he really knows how to work with actors. Win Win's talented cast is moulded effortlessly into an exceptional ensemble, with Amy Ryan subtly turning Mike's wife into an emotional ballast for the film while Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor develop an extremely funny double-act as Mike's pals, who assist with his coaching of an entirely useless teenage wrestling team. McCarthy's writing for all of his characters is generally sharp and believable, but his plotting can sometimes be too neat, and when Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up having run away from his junkie mum (an excellent Melanie Lynskey), it feels like a clichéd setup. When Kyle turns out to be a wrestling prodigy whose ability might transform Mike's team, it feels like a strained contrivance. But such worries are quickly allayed by the manner in which McCarthy handles these aspects of his film, and by the fact that first-time actor Shaffer invests Kyle with an odd, unpredictable attitude that makes him hard to read but fascinating to watch.
The other part of the film that feels a little too neat in its construction comes right at the end of the film. McCarthy is guilty of giving his characters a happy ending that feels incongruous following the messy emotional entanglements he has laid out. However, that desire to see the characters are OK comes directly from McCarthy's genuine empathy with and affection for them. Win Win is such a warmhearted picture, which makes the BBFC's decision to give it a 15 rating an extremely baffling one. During the course of the film, the phrase "Whatever the fuck it takes" becomes a key phrase for one of the characters, but the repetition of the word "fuck" has seen it earn a higher certification for "strong language." In the past year, I've watched as numerous mainstream Hollywood action films featuring gruesome acts of inconsequential violence arrive in UK cinemas with a 12A rating, while some contextual and entirely justified swearing apparently merits a 15. We live in troubling times.