Under the Radar?: “Win Win”

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an “Under the Radar”, so just to refresh anyone new to the site, this series is my look at smaller films – not necessarily indie films – but, just movies that I feel a lot of people probably haven’t seen.

As recommended by my podcasting partner in crime, Chris “Tank” Tanski, this entry is on “Win Win”, a 2011 “family” drama from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I put the “family” in quotes as many of the core players in this film have familial relationships without actually being related, while others, though related, treat each other very poorly…

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with an ailing law practice and mounting debts. In his spare time, he coaches the hapless local high school wrestling team. Things aren’t exactly going well for him… he’s out of shape, having trouble making ends meet, and his team has never won a match.

Things begin to change when one of his elderly clients, Leo (played by Burt Young), has a guardianship hearing. Deemed unfit by the court to take care of himself, Leo is about to be turned over to the care of the state… when Giamatti intervenes. He offers to become Leo’s legal guardian, which would allow Leo to live at home in his own house. The court permits it.

Unfortunately, Giamatti wasn’t acting with the purest of intentions. As a state approved guardian, he receives $1,500 a month to take care of Leo. He can’t, however, look after Leo closely in order to allow him to live at home as he promised the State. Instead he has Leo stay at a living facility – which Leo’s estate pays for – and checks in on him occasionally. Essentially, afterwards, Giamatti’s character gets to pocket $1,500 a month for nothing.

Karma collects however, when Leo’s grandson comes to call. He’s run away from “home”. His mother is in rehab and he was living with one of her boyfriends. After catching a black eye, he’s run away to try to see if he can stay with his grandfather. Of course, given the sittuation now, he can’t. Giamatti is called in, though, and the boy winds up staying temporarily with he and his wife (Amy Ryan). It’s a big gesture… but there’s one thing they didnt count on.

The boy is a championship calibre wrestler.

What follows is a fantastic, low key little relationship film, with moments of genuine comedy. Giamatti and Ryan turn in excellent, empathetic performances as two parental figures suddenly thrust into caring for a teen without having planned on it. Alex Shaffer also turns in a nice, understated performance as Kyle, the troubled teen with a talent for grappling. Along the way, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor add humor as the assistant coaches to the wrestling team.

It’s a sweet movie peppered with laugh out loud moments. Giamatti’s character has a moral struggle to go through over the guardianship stipend, while Shaffer’s Kyle struggles with his issues of neglect. We get the pleasure of watching a bond form between them, along with the wrestling team slowly turning its fortunes around. It’s a very heartwarming film that never goes over the top, and never lets its characters settle for easy answers.

Win Win currently sits at a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (162 reviews). It’s a great recommendation if you’re looking for something mellow to watch!


30 thoughts on “Under the Radar?: “Win Win”

  1. Good choice, Fogs. This was definitely one of last year’s more underrated films, with a strong screenplay and a great cast. Paul Giamatti always seems to deliver the goods in everything he’s in.

  2. Great to give this some attention, it did show up in some best of lists, but wasn’t checked out by many people. This was an excellent movie well worth watching. Interesting characters, funny situations and a little drama mixed in.

    • Exactly. It had excellent characters, I thought, too. And the humor was really well paced. Lots of little funny things here and there, and then every now and then BAM! They hit you with the big laugh!

  3. Great film, and one of my favorite Giamatti performances from recent memory. I think it says a lot about last year that this didn’t crack my top 15; it’s hard to go wrong with McCarthy in the first place but he’s at the top of his game and directing a really strong cast (though I personally felt that Amy Ryan had less to do than she should have).

    The real revelation here for me is Alex Shaffer. Playing teen can be a tough balancing act; those roles call for a degree of petulance, the sort of obnoxious and obstinate attitude that has to be tempered by more likable qualities. Shaffer makes the whole thing look effortless.

    • It has been on one of the premium channels, not sure which… but yeah, that’s how I caught it.

      If you like Giamatti, you definitely should. Its a good role for him. Low key flick, but fun

  4. What perfect timing. Just watched it this past weekend and was thoroughly glad I did. The comedy and emotions balanced out perfectly and I thought that the end scene was the perfect ending. I am a big Paul Giamatti fan and on my son’s recommendation I bought a copy. This is the type of film that makes me glad I’m into movies.

    • Totally agree.

      We own your boy on this one though Al. I had heard of it – it made a couple of top tens I saw last year – but without him I wouldnt have checked it out. Sounds like youre in the same boat. He’s got some ok tastes sometimes… just dont tell him I said that 😀

  5. Giammatti is excellent in this supercomplex character father/attorney/coach/foster parent. It’s like a casserole with everything thrown in that tastes rich and hearty figuratively when viewed. I really enjoy how Bobby Cannavale character (Terry Delfino, Flaherty’s best friend) injects himself as an assistant coach to watch the kid in the film win at wrestling. It’s like Delfino’s somehow trying to take credit for the wrestler’s victory reliving some of Delfino’s glory days in high school. The overall plot is great Giammatti as Flaherty trying to lie to his office and wife that what’s he’s doing is okay rather than wholely unethical. Even though what he’s doing is very decent in the middle of all the events. It’s a great reflection of life complicated, decent, and a little messy (dare I say ‘Grey’- LOL, no let’s not go there again). Super film; a fine pick.

    • A character casserole!! LOL!! Thats awesome!!


      Yeah, Cannavale’s character is great, he’s totally skimey. But in a fun way. I love how Tambor reacts to him being added. The scene where they bicker over which is going to take which seat is great, LOL.

      You’re right, it’s great character confliction. On the one hand he’s very upstanding and upright, but on the other he made a pretty weasley move there to get that guardianship money. The way it plays out is excellent. They dont overplay anything.

      Thanks for having my back here, I definitely enjoyed this one, happy to see people responding well to it.

  6. This is definitely one of those underrated feel good movies. It’s also a “real” feeling film and nothing really says it but the quaint ending scene.

  7. “Win Win” is an unfortunate title. Makes one think is a conventional sports movie. Its not that. Maybe “Tough Times” or something, would’ve been better. The economy puts the bite on the main characters, and they struggle to do what’s right. You never think Giamatti’s Mike is a bad guy or that he’s not doing right by Leo. It’s just the pressure of the situation. And in walks Kyle.Looking at the film, you’d think it had low production values. Director McCarthy tones everything down for an incredible natural feeling. Great relaxing pacing! Paul Giamatti’s inner conflicts are perfect. Just call him “Angst”. While everyone singled out Alex Shaffer, I really liked Melanie Lynskey as his mom. If she hadn’t interrupted her career for college she would have been Kate Winslet and I’m always happy to see her in a good role! I think McCarthy is only one film shy of batting 400!

    • I like “Win Win”… it works. “Tough times” is a bummer.

      You’re right though, in spite of some questionable calls, you never feel like he’s a bad guy. You’re always on his side, rooting for him. And the film does have a really natural feel… it’s awesome.

      On the other hand though, I dont know that I’d say if Melanie Lynskey hadn’t interrupted her career for college she would have been Kate Winslet. Might be a stretch. 😀

      • Well, “Tough Times” isn’t right, but “Win Win” loses! Lynskey’s first film was Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures”, co-starring another unknown actress, Kate Winslet. Most of the good reviews were for Melanie and while Kate did okay, she went on to bigger and better films while Melanie went to college for three years(a life time for a starting actress) before moving to L.A.

  8. I completely agree with this recommendation. This film was so good and, while Thomas McCarthy crafted a great story, I think the acting was the main reason for it. Paul Giamatti has been so good at everything lately that he sometimes is taken for granted. Yet this was one of his best roles yet. His speech to the kid before he tries to get into States was one of the best moments of the year. Amy Ryan and Alex Shaffer also gave remarkable performances, and even though it was in a throw away role, I really liked seeing Margo Martindale on the big screen again.

  9. Just an honest to goodness simple story. Paul Giammati is so good at playing these kind of flawed characters and still keeping them totally amiable and compelling. I loved Win Win and was sad to see it didn’t garner much of any awards. Totally under the radar indeed. Good review Dan!

    • Thanks Cap, glad we see eye to eye. I’m a big Gimmati fan – he’s just got a huge likeability quotient, you know?

      Would have been nice to see it get a little more recognition, too, yeah.

  10. So glad to see this one on FMR….it’s just one of those low key, “under the radar” films that you just have to see. Loved all the characters, but my favorite was Tambor’s….

    • I never wrestled, but he reminded me of some of the parents that coached my sports teams when I was young. They didnt actually know what they were doing and their advice was mainly just platitudes, LOL.

      Funny though yeah. He’s hysterical

  11. I am so glad you liked this one so much. I wanted to see and and missed it in theaters. It had since been forgotten about. So thanks for bringing it back to my attention!

    I usually enjoy Giamatti’s work and look forward to enjoying this one too!

  12. This is one of my favorite indie movies. I got in for the screener for this one and I loved it! A great film that needs more press than it has gotten so far. So glad you enjoyed the film!

  13. I just found this and was impressed with the way you expressed the characters in the movie. They are the main selling point of the story, but t6here is an important theme here as well. I like that you called it Karma, because we earn so much of what we get. This movie is about learning to earn what is worthwhile. It was number two on my list for that year and it speaks about the struggle all of us have to go through to truly be winners. I’d like to share my post with you because this film merits real attention.


    • Thanks Richard. I’ll try to get around to it… I’ll let you know though that my blogging time is kind of stretched thin right now in preparation for year end. Just putting that out there for your understanding. In addition to my typical provide content/respond to comments/try my best to keep up with people’s current stuff, I’m also trying to swing back to a bunch of movies I’ve missed and prepare my year end awards posts, which I do kind of go overboard with LOL.

      So I’ll try to circle around, but I wanted to let you know where I’m at for your understanding.

      Meanwhile, yeah, thanks. I enjoyed this one too. Glad you dug the review!

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