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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Win Win

It is not a flawless movie, but in the end it worked well enough for me.

As much as I love Paul Giamatti, the subplot involving his character Mike Flaherty, a lawyer in a New Jersey small town, is pretty weak. With his practice in recession and his bank account dwindling, he cut a few ethical corners for an additional $1500 income a month that he did not earn. The audience knows that he would ultimately get in trouble for his poor judgment, but the cheerful tone of the movie assures us early on that the writer/director, Tom McCarthy, would not let anything too painful happen to him.

This "tired middle-aged man who has made one too many compromise" plot has been done before, and much more effectively, in other movies (for example, "Michael Clayton", Ringo Lam's later work). Nevertheless, Giamatti has enough chops to give some variation and hints of unexplored depth to his character that prevented Mike from slipping into a caricature.

I was feeling a bit disappointed and impatient after about one third of the movie, and then something happened and pulled me in. The best part of the movie, to me, started when a 16-year-old boy named Kyle showed up in Mike and family's lives. He had run away from a drug addict mother and her abusive boyfriend. He also happened to be a talented wrestler and became the most valuable player on the up-till-then pathetic high school wrestling team Mike coached.

The few wrestling scenes were expertly and beautifully done. Here, McCarthy's inside knowledge (he wrestled in high school) was put to great use. They contained just enough information to allow a totally ignorant viewer like me to see how and why Kyle won without any exposition. I could generally follow what was happening on the mat and understand why a kid could lose his game but win for the team. The choreography, cinematography, and editing of the wrestling scenes are all impeccably executed. It also helped, of course, that the actor cast for Kyle, Alex Shaffer, is a very good wrestler in real life and won the New Jersey state championship in the 119 lb. level.

On the other hand, Shaffer had had no acting experience before being chosen for this movie. Not surprisingly, McCarthy's background as a seasoned actor allows him to bring out the best in actors in his movie, not only the boy but also all the supporting cast, especially a wonderful Amy Ryan as Mike's wife Jackie.

Kyle's flat affect at the beginning, his transformation in the Flaherty household, and the climactic confrontation near the end (which works really well with me because it is the least "safe" element in the entire movie), and all of his wrestling matches, were the best parts of the movie. Overall, the screenplay is just a little too cute and too safe to be fully successful, but Kyle's subplot gives the movie an edge that it desperately needs.

I wish McCarthy had focused on the darker currents lurking beneath the jokes and screwballs: A child is disappointed, again and again, by the self-centered, incompetent, weak adults around him, leaving him to fend for himself in this world. He turns out to be the only one among the whole lot who makes the least mess of his life, perhaps thanks to the discipline of and his success in a sport. I instantly identified with Kyle and his disappointments (although I've got no sport) and wish McCarthy had gone deeper along these lines.

Instead, he chose an easier and more crowd-pleasing approach. Although he came up with some pretty clever twists and turns in the script, the resolution was just a little too neat and too comfortable, making the audience feel a little too good, to be fully satisfying.

The acting is excellent all around. Most touching is the interaction --- The chemistry between Shaffer and Ryan was perhaps the best. Shaffer and Giamatti, Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale, and the entire team of wrestling kids all produced palpable camaraderie and relationships.

I have to suspect that the filmmakers may be a little too fond of the characters to really, truly make them hurt, really really hurt. Or perhaps they don't trust the audience enough to let us see anything so realistic that it is grotesque. That is the problem of loving one's creation, isn't it? I can certainly relate.

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