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The (Other) $0.99 Movie of the Week: ‘Win Win’

Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.

Ok, the featured $0.99 movie this week is DC’s R-rated, animated Justice League flick Justice League Dark. Judging by the trailer, it looks to be an intense bit of comic book confection. Alas, I’ve been teetering on the verge of superhero fatigue, so I just couldn’t muster the energy to watch this one. Thanks to iTunes’ recent addition of the ‘Movies You Might Have Missed’ section, I didn’t have to. So …

This week, a struggling lawyer’s life is upended when he takes a runaway teen under his wing in Win Win.

I Guess It Feels Like I’m in Control

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is one of the good guys. But his life isn’t going quite to plan. He’s got a flagging elder-law practice that barely supports his family. His wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) keeps nagging him about the dead tree in the front yard. And the high school wrestling team he coaches part-time can’t win a match. Mike’s life starts to change when some shady dealings with a wealthy client (Burt Young) offer a chance to score some extra loot.

Those shady dealings become a ‘win win’ for Mike after said client’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up with no plan and no place to stay. Turns out Kyle is a bona-fide wrestling prodigy. So Mike takes him in and gets him on the team roster. But as time passes, a genuine affection forms between the boy and his adoptive family. Seems all Kyle needed to thrive was a stable environment. But that stability is threatened when his wayward mom (Melanie Lynskey) turns up to claim what’s hers. So begins Tom McCarthy’s tender-hearted tale of triumphs and tragedies Win Win.

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Can You Slap Me Too, Coach?

I know, that summary makes Win Win sound like an overstuffed melodrama. It isn’t. McCarthy tells that tale with a genre-jumping agility rarely seen in the film world. Through Win Win‘s 105-minute runtime, McCarthy covers every topic from fractured families and mid-life crises to elder care and high-school sports. He does so with a nimble hand that allows Win Win to shift topics and tones at a near schizophrenic pace without losing sight of its story. And McCarthy’s refreshingly simple narrative approach ensures that those shifts always feel like they’re part of the same movie.

That’s part of what makes McCarthy’s film such an impressive bit of storytelling. After all, Win Win is essentially a sports movie. The sort where a kind-hearted coach helps a troubled young athlete come to terms with his place in the world and his life on the field. Or in this case, life on the mats. Either way, Win Win is cut from the same cloth as dozens of sports movies that came before it. But Win Win is never formulaic. McCarthy is too good a storyteller for that. In a dexterous bit of scripting, he takes that sports movie formula and flips it by its ankles.

Win Win may be a sports movie, but it’s a deeply human sports movie. The film’s central relationship may be that of coach and athlete, but it often plays like father and son. McCarthy takes the tensions inherent to both of those relationships and builds a singular narrative from them. One that dramatically bolsters the heroic highs and heart-wrenching lows to come. Those highs and lows come fast and furious in the film’s final act. McCarthy undercuts expectations at every turn. And he spins an unforgettable human drama along the way.

Still, McCarthy’s no-frills storytelling places much of the Win Win‘s dramatic impact on the shoulders of his performers. The film’s mighty heart finds able-bodied support on the backs of its leads Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer. That’ll come as no surprise to fans of Giamatti. He’s long been regarded as one of cinema’s finest actors. His work on Win Win is some of his finest. He imbues the kind-hearted Mike with an everyman fallibility that makes even his digressions feel honest. The gifted actor finds a fiery but soulful counterpoint in Shaffer. The newcomer – an actual wrestling prodigy – can flash a wave of rage or an ocean of anguish with a simple down cast eye or mono-syllabic response. It’s his ability to handle both the emotional and physical aspects of the role that make Win Win work.

When your cast includes the likes of Amy Ryan, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Jeffrey Tambor, and Bobby Cannavale, that’s saying a lot.

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Worth It?

You bet. Part wrenching family drama and part rousing sports story, Win Win is that rare movie that has something to please any audience. It’s even got a wicked sense of humor to boot. Win Win‘s warm heart, sharp wit, and piercing insight will appeal to indie film snobs and sports fanatics alike. And if you think you’re not a fan of Paul Giamatti, well, you will be once the credits roll. So don’t think twice about dropping that dollar on Win Win this week. With so much drama working on so many levels, it more than lives up to its name.

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