Saturday, March 10, 2012

Win Win

2011, 106 min., R for language (a very mild R)
IMDB says... A struggling lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach's chicanery comes back to haunt him when the teenage grandson of the client he's double-crossed comes into his life.

The 73rd Virgin says... A slippery uplifting sports drama wrapped in an outer skin of humor. I didn’t catch a single cliché. Giamatti is Mike, a small time lawyer with a failing practice in New Providence, New Jersey, who shares a crumbling building with a small-time CPA (Tambor). They are also the coaches of the high school’s disastrous wrestling team. When one of his clients in early dementia has to give up his house Mike takes over his guardianship and a nice monthly stipend and moves the old man into a care facility rather than helping him move back into his house as he told the judge he would.

This ethical lapse slips into the background for a while as we learn the old man’s daughter is in drug rehab in Ohio and her 17-ish son Kyle (Alex Shaffer in his first movie) has decided to move to New Providence to stay with Grandpa. He’s extremely quiet but not rude or threatening. With nowhere to go he moves in with Mike’s family for a few days and even attends a couple wrestling practices where it is discovered he is more than good.

Mike’s recently divorced friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) needs a diversion and finds it in this mysterious kid whose wrestling achievements are well documented. He decides to be an assistant coach as well which sets up funny scenes with Tambor and Giamatti.

And then all the clichés simply don’t show up. What a relief. The kid is good but he doesn’t suddenly take the whole team to State. They get a little better.

They get destroyed at a match where the home team has helpfully attached a poster to the ceiling that says “you’re pinned”, so it’s the last thing they see as the hand comes down. Mike’s wife isn’t immediately filled with warmth toward the boy. She tolerates him but generally wants him gone. As good-hearted as Mike may be, he decides to enroll Kyle in high school to get him on the team and lies to him about his grandfather’s situation.

All such sport uplift movies require the hot girl next door, with the emotional maturity and understanding of a 28 year-old, who will 1) mother the hero, 2) have sex with him. This girl never shows up. There are no love interests anywhere. So many sports dramas turn turgid, but thanks to Cannavale’s humorous scenes and Amy Ryan as the very realistic wife, Giamatti and Shaffer are free to do the drama.

When mom gets out of rehab she comes looking for Grandpa’s money. The boy’s reaction is at first suppressed anger and flight, followed by real violence against coach, Mom, and a wrestling opponent. In these scenes, Shaffer’s blank darting eyes, in contrast to earlier less agitated scenes, and Giamatti’s kind and wise read of the situations are convincing.

Non-clichés pile up, and all the while there are casually humorous scenes involving Kyle’s hopeless teammates. And it seems like the story revolves around wrestling specifically because it’s unglamorous. There is one musical montage, but I even tolerated that. The clips don’t do justice to the numerous and convincing wrestling scenes. Shaffer is apparently a recent state high school champ. I wondered how they trained-up an actor so well. I learned a little bit about the athleticism involved and even the scoring, I think.

Eventually the final conflict involving the ethical lapse at the beginning must be resolved. The humor abates for about 20 minutes as this plays out, but still the movie never feels oppressive or manipulative.

My faux uplift detector is locked in at 11 with the knobs broken off. I lost interest in sports-as-life-lesson movies somewhere between “Brian’s Song” and “Rocky”. But I enjoyed every bit of this.

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