In Win Win, Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a middle-aged man with a struggling law practice focused on serving elderly clients. On the side, he coaches a perpetually losing high school wrestling team. Mike has a loving wife and two wonderful young daughters, but also a lot of financial stress that is contributing to a heart problem.
Mike realizes that he can make $1500 per month from a client, Leo (Burt Young), who suffers from dementia, by convincing a judge to appoint him to be Leo’s guardian. Leo wants to continue to live at home, and Mike promises the judge that he will see that Leo’s wishes are followed. However, rather than keeping his word, Mike moves Leo into an assisted living facility and pockets the money every month. Eventually, Leo’s wrestling prodigy teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) leaves home to look for his grandfather, which sets Mike on a rocky financial and moral course.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) has created a well-written and well-acted movie. Giamatti and Shaffer put in particularly strong performances, but everyone is well-cast and does a superb job. There are a lot of characters here. I wanted to see more of Mike’s wife (ably played by Amy Ryan) and Kyle’s mother (a moving, understated performance by Melanie Lynskey).
Win Win is funny, but it is also moving in its reflection on selfishness and how it shapes people’s interactions with one another.
Spoiler Alert. The remainder of the review reveals some major plot points.
Early in the movie, Mike implies that he sees himself as virtuous because the way he practices law is not motivated merely to earn money. Of course, Mike undermines himself by taking advantage of both Leo and the judge who trusts him.
Similarly, Mike is interested in Kyle at first because he has to keep his fraud a secret. It is only when Mike sees Kyle’s wrestling talents that Mike actually takes a real interest in Kyle. In doing so, Mike uses Kyle to shore up another aspect of his life that is lacking, the wrestling team that never wins.
When Kyle’s mother Cindy shows up to Kyle him back to Ohio, her motive is not entirely clear. She wants to take care of her father Leo to get to his money, but she seems to a have a more pure motive in taking her son back, perhaps a chance to redeem herself in his eyes and in her own.
When Cindy confronts Mike over Kyle, it becomes more difficult to root for Mike. Mike offers a more stable home. Kyle has serious emotional issues to resolve with his mother and appears to want to stay with Mike. But, Mike isn’t fighting from a purely altruistic position.
In the end, the resolution really isn’t a win-win situation, at least not for Leo, the judge, or Mike’s and Cindy’s integrity.