Tuesday, March 19, 2013
"Win Win" an endearing film about life's ruts & triumphs
I had the same experience with the movie "W" about the life of President George W. Bush. I called the Theater about the Bush movie, even asking if there were political reasons behind the apparent non-booking! ("You're a political animal," one-time Morris Chamber of Commerce manager Scott Beckman told me.)
In our media-drenched universe, people my age can't expect business to be done like in the old days. They say the 1930s was "the golden age of Hollywood." Balderdash. Take a look at the DVD vending machine at McDonald's. Hollywood is spitting out movies faster than I can keep track of them. Today is the "golden age."
The movie "Win Win," despite its visibility in those cable TV promos and its obvious charm and quality, evidently didn't penetrate into the clear mainstream. James Berardinelli of "Reelviews" didn't even review it. I even noticed a little campaign online to get him to review it. Good ol' Roger Ebert did review it. Ebert liked it but not as much as I would have expected. I would have expected Roger to like it without any reservations. Ebert is a "critic of the people," and "Win Win" is a tale about real people, showing their flaws and everyday tribulations but also their ability to prevail.
There is nothing not to like about "Win Win," which stars the endearing everyman Paul Giamatti. I didn't like him in "Sideways" which I considered the epitome of amoral Hollywood tripe. But "Win Win" is a fresh and inspiring offering which Giamatti seized to portray Americana - the joys but also the grim challenges faced by ordinary Americans. These are Americans facing the specter of bills to pay. They are in no way extraordinary with their talents. Or motivations. They don't rule out cutting corners or bending rules.
We all know people who might resort to a little shiftiness. Hold up a mirror, anyone? Some of these people may slip into a gray area where they might be truly "bad." But there surely is a wide gray area. Stuff breaks and people don't fix it. This isn't just suggested in "Win Win," it's vividly portrayed. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a struggling attorney whose office is plagued by a clanging furnace, the repair of which poses a daunting bill. We can nod as we relate. I raise and lower our garage door manually even though there's an automatic system in place - gremlins, I guess.
"Win Win" shows people on the margins with overwhelming reason to feel discouragement, but who nonetheless feel a zest for life and family. You just have to probe below the surface. Attorney Flaherty has no intention of being corrupt or to hurt anyone. But he does play fast and loose with the legal rules. This is in his role as a legal caretaker for an elderly client with early dementia issues. The client is played by Burt Young. You remember Burt from "Rocky?" I have a fondness for him mainly because of a movie you have most certainly forgotten. He starred in "Uncle Joe Shannon" which had a soundtrack featuring my childhood musical idol: Maynard Ferguson, trumpet player. Burt and Maynard may have been on the cusp of long-term fame at the time. But the movie did not succeed.
Burt Young acts very well as Flaherty's client in "Win Win." He's a patriarchal old man who has been blessed by riches. In the end he wills his money to the city parks system - God bless him. He overlooks his ne'er-do-well daughter played by Melanie Lynskey. I won't bother stating anymore that a particular actor acted well, because I think everyone acted brilliantly, creating a gem of a movie that deserved to circulate more widely than it evidently did.
It's amazing this far into this blog post that I haven't alluded to the sports element of the movie. Is it a "sports movie?" It comes close but I'm not sure I'd brand it that way. I found it very refreshing to see a movie presenting high school wrestling, the red-haired stepchild of winter prep sports, in such a dedicated way. I have been to many high school wrestling meets. I used to cover the sport for the print media. There's no sport I didn't cover for the print media.
So you might want to know: Do I consider high school wrestling to be under-appreciated? Well, the answer is no. I don't blame the average Joe fan for not being greatly interested in watching. Two guys wrap around each other on a mat while a referee assigns points on various moves. It's rather esoteric. It seems depressing when a kid gets pinned. There is an obsession with weight classes. I found it depressing that so many kids went out of their way to drop weight. I found it depressing when several weight classes would be "forfeited" during the course of a match. Some coaches would hesitate sending out a kid to vie vs. a "superstar" opponent. The fame of these "superstars" would circulate widely in the wrestling realm, just like the reputation of "fast guns" in the old west.
The state wrestling tournament is like a mecca - yes, with almost religious-seeming overtones - for those in the wrestling fraternity. And that's a big part of the problem: it's too much of a fraternity. It can seem too "inside baseball." (Did that term originate with the old Johnny Bench syndicated TV show?)
Giamatti as Flaherty coaches a suburban New Jersey high school team in a losing rut. It's symbolic of course. "Win Win" is about the grind of day-to-day struggles and human failings, even as it shows our potential to rise above in the end.
The Burt Young character has a grandson who shows up out of the blue to startle Flaherty. The grandson is a diffident young man of few words, a boy who has been deeply hurt and made cynical before his time. We see he has a heart of gold, though. He buys Cocoa Puffs for his grandpa. What better symbol of love? Alex Shaffer, a real-life wrestling champion, plays "Kyle."
The assistant coaches add texture to the movie. Bobby Cannavale plays "Terry" who is Mike's best friend. Terry has had much travail come into his life. Like for example, his wife leaving him for the contractor who was hired to remodel the house.
Mike and Terry have the kind of friendship I find most endearing. Remember your best friend from college? It's like that. It has that unconditional quality - we sense the potential for laughter no matter what storm clouds are looming. Cannavale as Terry is enlisted to sit with the coaches at mid-season. Holy cow, it's sort of like "Hoosiers" in which the (stereotypical) town drunk is enlisted, right? Terry has rough edges as a coach but he's much more stable than the Dennis Hopper character.
Let's acknowledge the other assistant coach: "Vigman," played by reliable treadmill actor Jeffrey Tambor. By coincidence, I caught Tambor on the DVD of "Pollock" (about the artist) recently. "Vigman" is an accountant who shares Flaherty's office. Business isn't booming for him either. Life for these everyman souls seems to reflect the fortunes of that wrestling team.
But "Kyle" comes along and provides quite the new wrinkle. In the story he comes from Ohio. He's cutting ties with his druggie mom, or trying to. Kyle is a bleach-blond, zoned-out kid of few but well-chosen words. We're reminded of Sean Penn when he found his footing as an actor. But Alex doesn't have to "act" when wrestling. He's quite the genuine article. In fact he's amazing.
The coaches are amazed in practice when first they become aware of the young man's gifts. The coaches exchange glances just like the coaches in "The Natural" when first the Robert Redford character takes batting practice. The drab and drudgery-filled lives of the coaches, along with the Flaherty family, are about to be pierced by the presence of the extraordinary Kyle.
Kyle wrestles the way "Roy Hobbs" (Redford) hit baseballs. Kyle has every reason to be cynical and discouraged but he unmistakably projects love. With few words. So, is "Win Win" a sports movie? Sort of, but only to an extent. Some movies of this type feel they need to show the heroic characters winning it all at the end. Such was "Hoosiers." Some apparently feel this is too predictable so it's better to show some sort of setback at the end, but with some lessons learned. "Coach Carter" is that type of movie (with rap music impressed on your brain by the end).
"Win Win" goes in its own direction. Kyle never shows any flaws as a wrestler. But he does misbehave because of the swirling disillusionment he feels, i.e. the sense people are letting him down. He gets disqualified. But he doesn't "lose." We can't imagine him losing to anyone. In one scene the coaches are amazed watching a video of Kyle from Ohio. These jaded guys show effervescent joy, thrusting their arms up and shouting as they watch Kyle perform a move they are well familiar with.
Kyle is a reminder that triumph can come out of nowhere. He's a reminder that many of life's triumphs can be unscripted and unexpected. He's a reminder that a simple box of Cocoa Puffs is a gesture of unconditional love.
We become fans of the "New Providence High Pioneers." We become fans of all the actors and actresses in "Win Win." James Berardinelli did not review this movie. I'm most happy to roll up my sleeves and do so.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org