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‘Win Win’ lives up to name

Paul Giamatto and Alex Shaffer star in ’Win Win.’

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Tom McCarthy’s affecting new comedy drama “Win Win” tackles what might very well be the defining topic of our times: In a nation addicted to success and consumption, what happens when the bottom drops out and you can barely pay your bills?

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a high-school wrestling coach and suburban Chicago lawyer whose client list has dried up. He realizes he can earn an extra $1,500 a month by becoming the court-appointed legal guardian to one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), suffering from dementia. But Mike lies to the court and to Leo and moves the older man into an elder-care facility to minimize his own obligations.

This is a bold move, to ask us to root for a character whose actions are illegal and appalling. But the writer-director has a few tricks up his sleeve. In the lead, he’s cast Giamatti, whose perpetual exasperation can be very funny, until the humor suddenly evaporates and we’re left with poignancy and heartbreak.

McCarthy also gives this character a proper chance at redemption: Enter Kyle (the excellent newcomer Alex Shaffer), Leo’s teen grandson who has run away from home and turns up wanting to live with his grandfather. Mike has no choice but to allow him to stay in his house, much to the confusion of his wife (Amy Ryan), who doesn’t know the details of Paul’s deal with the court. The withdrawn, bleach-blond Kyle clearly needs a father figure, and Mike draws the boy deeper into his world.

“Win Win” contains any number of contrivances, starting with the fact that Kyle happens to be an ex-state-championship high-school wrestler. But even when its gears are grinding, it remains delicate and sincere. There’s nothing glib or easy. We just see what happens when decent-hearted people box themselves into lousy corners and realize there’s no way out.


What: “Win Win”

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Burt Young, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: R for strong language

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