There’s something about Paul Giamatti’s face that eases the soul. It’s a rather flabby face, neither glamorous nor handsome, but there’s an emotional intelligence which gives Giamatti’s performances an everyman quality. And Hollywood has warmed to Giamatti, too. From supporting roles in big budget movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Truman Show in the 90’s, the Noughties saw Giamatti regularly cast as the emotionally put-upon lead in quirky, lower budget films like Sideways and American Splendour. In fact, having Paul Giamatti in a leading role almost defines a film as ‘indie’ simply because Giamatti doesn’t look like he belongs in Hollywood. He doesn’t look pleased enough with himself.
And this makes him perfect for a warm-hearted, gentle comedy like Win Win. Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), it’s set in the same white, middle-class American small town of films like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, though it lacks the dramatic scope of the former or the laugh out-loud farce of the latter. Giamatti plays Mike, a mild and well-intentioned lawyer - and part time high school wrestling coach - struggling to get enough clients to support his wife and two kids. The office plumbing is on the blink and the tree in front of his house is about to come down, but Mike isn’t someone who chases the big bucks. Until, that is, he sees an opportunity to become guardian to an elderly client with dementia who will pay him a monthly stipend but can – probably - be left in residential care. Things become more complicated when the man’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) runs away from his negligent mother to stay with his grandfather. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) allow him to stay with them instead.
I don’t know how popular wrestling is in high schools in the US – and this is the wrestling you see in the Olympics rather than WWF – but in a lucky coincidence Kyle is brilliant at it, which allows him to join Mike’s losing wrestling team and for the film’s story to develop. But although it flirts with all the best sporting clichés, Win Win is a fuzzy rather than an energetic film, and Kyle’s integration into the family is more important than whether the team actually wins. Even the minor characters are likeable, but although Win Win definitely has a social conscience, it retains an indie cool by side-stepping overt sentimentality. When Jackie tells Kyle that she loves him, it comes as a bit of a surprise.
I enjoyed Win Win, but it’s a good rather than a great film. The script rarely sparkles, and the mellow feel throughout means you never really worry for the main characters. Win Win is probably not funny enough to truly be a comedy, and not tense enough to really be a drama. There are also too many similarities to other films in this suburban indie genre. Kyle’s best friend, Stemler, is the likeable geek who we’ve seen so many times before, whilst the dynamic between Mike and best friend Terry, played by Bobby Cannavale, is strikingly similar to that between Thomas Haden Church and Giamatti in Sideways. The reason, perhaps, why this lack of originality isn’t jarring is that films like Win Win can include performances like those of Giamatti and Shaffer, who are both excellent throughout. But although the characters seem more earthy and sincere than in other Hollywood fare, this is a world where there are no sharp edges.
Family life in a middle american suburb is brilliantly handled in "Malcolm in the Middle" but a film which meanders aimlessly and is so blatantly a moral tale for our times sucks in every way. We are obviously in the silly season for movies and film critics across the land have put their pen to paper to fill the gap required in their newspapers. This movie would have gone straight to DVD at any other time of the year. Any good points: it's short and Paul Giamatti can act, but I'm not too sure about some of his choices these days. He'll soon rival Michael Caine for the number of turkeys he's featured in.