I'm on a bit of a Sundance kick right now--tonight I'm attending a preview screening of Like Crazy, a big hit at the independent film festival earlier this year (and one of our predicted Best Picture and Best Actress nominees for 2011), and last night I got the chance to attend an on-campus screening of Fox Searchlight's newest film (and another Sundance darling) Win Win, directed by The Visitor's Tom McCarthy and starring Paul Giamatti.
The former I won't get the chance to write about for many a month--it's not yet been assigned a release date, much less an MPAA rating. The latter, however, is embargo-free, so I'm free to say that it is just short of a total knockout. Well-acted, well-written, and well-paced, the film is nothing short of superb.
Win Win stars Giamatti as Mike, a lawyer in small-town New Jersey with two daughters who is struggling to make ends meet despite working a second job coaching a tragic high school wrestling team. He's afraid to let his wife, Jackie (the brilliant Amy Ryan), know exactly how bad things are, so he agrees to take on the guardianship of a dementia-addled client (Burt Young) declared incapacitated in order to make the extra $1,500 a month.
The client's daughter (Melanie Lynskey, so brilliant in Away We Go and doing even better work here) is absent, but her son, Kyle (first-time actor Alex Shaffer, so naturally deadpan), shows up from Ohio and winds up in Mike's care. Kyle appears to be a bit of a loose cannon: he has tattoos, he smokes, and he seems to be keeping more than a few secrets. Despite Jackie's initial hesitation, the family winds up taking Kyle in. They soon learn that Kyle is an expert wrestler, so Mike and his assistant coaches (the older, more useless coach played by Jeffrey Tambor; the younger coach obsessed with Kyle's ability played with a lack of censor and brilliant comic energy by Bobby Cannavale) place him in the high school and on the team.
It's fascinating to watch the initially icy Kyle melt as his relationships with Mike and Jackie develop, and Shaffer makes his slow transformation feel honest. When his mother finally shows up on the scene, Shaffer's reactions allow the audience to share in Kyle's pain. He's a bit wooden at moments, as any first-time actor might be, but his immense charm wins the audience over--they want Kyle to succeed and grow. Giamatti is doing his typical phenomenal work, acting in a morally gray area with such a desperate desire to help his family that the audience never once turns away from him. Ryan is a firecracker as Jackie, the comedic punch and emotional core of the film. It's a massive credit to her that the role doesn't play as a nag or an overcautious woman. Like her fellow leads, her character feels immensely real.
Not often does a film feel as authentic as this one. The set design is homey and very warm--Amanda Carroll's work here is far different than the sets she designed for Shutter Island, but these sets are equally detailed and engaging. Scott Anderson, the art director, knows exactly how to make an authentic middle-class experience feel relatable and realistic. The script, written by director McCarthy, is awkward at moments but full of heart.
Where the movie disappoints is in its execution. The cinematography is awkward and the shots are far too short. The editing is too quick and focuses far too much on close-up shots. The method with which the shots are cut makes it feel like a character can't talk unless the camera is right on their face. It caused the film to proceed a bit slowly and never feel quite as immersive as it could have been. Ultimately, McCarthy's direction is likely to blame--it's as though he meant it to be stylistically awkward and just missed the mark.
However, none of those errors destroy the impact of the film--merely reminders of what could have been. Judged simply on the acting and writing, this is a perfect movie. As is, it merely comes awfully close to a total Win. A-