Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 November 2011

Such a Win

I have to admit that when I saw the trailer for Thomas McCarthy's Win Win I was highly skeptical.

I tend to be skeptical of Paul Giamatti in general these days. His brand of schlubby but lovable, difficult but ultimately charming heroes has begun to wear thin with me. Last year's truly awkward Barney's Version is a perfect example. (He does historical dramas a lot too, I've noticed: Cinderella Man, I liked, but The Last Station and The Illusionist? I dunno. To me he seems sort of out of place in these.)

But Win Win is something else altogether.

First, and I want to stress this because I don't think it's an all-that-common occurrence, Win Win is a really funny comedy. By this I mean that I laughed, many times, at jokes that the film told well and that absolutely landed.

Second, the film knows that it's a genre picture. It's totally aware that it's a movie about a white, bourgeois, middle-aged man learning a lesson about his middle-aged manhood. Win Win always knows that it's riffing on a theme that's been played before, and it never pretends to be doing anything else. This makes Win Win smart. It avoids all the typical ways that those films work and does its own thing.

Third, Bobby Cannavale (who is fabulous in McCarthy's first film The Station Agent) is a genius. The man is a genius. He is simply one of the most skilled actors working today. I don't feel the need for any equivocation here. His performance in Win Win is excellent. It's brave and self-effacing and also manages to be absolutely hilarious. And it's one of Cannavale's typical side-man movie roles, one he could have easily phoned in. Instead he plays the part with a nuance that make his version of this rather stock character feel almost revelatory at times. Like we might want to look again at all of those good-for-a-laugh side-men in buddy comedies. The performance is just extraordinary.

I loved everyone else in the film, too. The little kid (Alex Shaffer) is great. Giamatti is great. And so are Amy Ryan and Burt Young and Margo Martindale (who is understated in a way I never see her).

Even more, the film is never schmaltzy. It doesn't get bogged down in the kind of sentiment that the trailer appears to promise, and it treats the film's relationships realistically and respectfully.

If you're looking for something light, and you want to see some excellent performances all around, check out Win Win. This is the comedy that everyone should be renting. Step away from the Kate Hudson movies and pick this one instead. You won't be disappointed. I promise.

(P.S. I have loved all three of Thomas McCarthy's movies, but I just want to note that I hate hate hate his character on The Wire. I think I just wanted to punch him in every single episode. Shall we chalk it up to good acting...?)