The opening shot of “Win Win,” a new dramedy from “The Station Agent” director Tom McCarthy, tells you almost everything you need to know about the main character, played by Paul Giamatti. Dressed in a tacky bright yellow New Providence Pioneers sweatshirt he’s jogging down a country road. The camera stays with him for a moment until two other, better-dressed older men pass him, running at a loping gait. Breathing heavy, he stops and watches the pair fade into the distance.
The scene tells us, wordlessly and elegantly, that he, no matter how hard he tries, is always getting passed by in life. It’s a quick scene, but what would have been a throwaway in most movies becomes a poignant opening to one of the most enjoyable movies of the year so far.
Giamatti is small-town lawyer and wrestling coach Mike Flaherty. With his practice on the ropes he make a dubious decision to become the legal guardian to client Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a wealthy man suffering from dementia. He desperately needs the $1500 a month pay cheque that comes along with the guardianship, but when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up the arrangement becomes complicated.
While there is much to admire in “Win Win,” like the great performances from old pros Giamatti or Amy Ryan, or the stirring work from newcomer Alex Shaffer or even how funny it is, the thing that really stands out about “Win Win” is its heart. McCarthy understands family and friend relationships and it shows in every frame of this film.
These are complicated characters with back stories and shortcomings galore, but McCarthy deftly shows us their relationships, exposing why they behave the way they do, why they like one another, and ultimately why we should care about them.
Part of it is casting—Giamatti is never bad and Shaffer is a thoroughly believable teen—but McCarthy, as writer and director, has to take the credit. It’s a tricky dance to introduce so many story threads—there’s a wrestling subplot, the story of Leo’s living arrangements, the drug addict mother’s relationship with Kyle and more—but McCarthy keep the film on track, keeping the focus where it belongs, on the characters.