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Written by on January 23, 2011 

With his third feature Win Win, writer/director Thomas McCarthy has created a commendable crowd-pleaser. His directorial debut The Station Agent won the Sundance audience award in 2003, and four years later he brought The Visitor to the fest. His latest appearance here in Park City is a tonal departure, but still maintains the effortlessly constructed humanistic approach of his earlier work. As he teams with Fox Searchlight, McCarthy has entered comedic territory he previously only waded in with his first two films. While the second half of the film works near-flawlessly, there are a few clunkers in the beginning due to this new approach. Fortunately, McCarthy’s character-crafting finesse is no different here, as he continues to blend the drama he excels with in this stirring family story.

Paul Giamatti is family man Mike Flaherty, a welcome change from his usual self-deprecating roles. As a struggling lawyer who runs his own small practice, Flaherty also coaches a high school wrestling team at night. He makes a shady proposition to became the guardian of one of his dementia-ridden clients (Burt Young) for $1,500 a month, which leads him to meet his grandson Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer). Flaherty finds the misguided teen, after showing up on his grandfather’s doorstop. Slowly unveiling his unmatched wrestling skills, we also learn about Timmons’ troubled past.

Coaching alongside Giamatti is Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and his recently-separated best friend Terry Delfino, played by scene stealer Bobby Cannavale. This dynamic brings the most laughs, but it takes awhile to get a rhythm in place. An ongoing joke regarding a broken water heater, and then a conventional gag as Cannavale inappropriately attempts to help Giamatti during a health mishap are just a few missteps that feel taken from a different film. When it finally finds a groove, it is easily some of the best scenes of McCarthy’s short filmography and he has Cannavale to thank.

As someone who has zero interest in wrestling, McCarthy effectively balances just the right amount, and manages to capture the excitement from a spectator’s approach. There are no schmaltzy flashes or hyper-stylized conventions. Like the surrounding drama, he focuses on the human elements  and the dedication it takes to invest in this strenuous activity. Unlike most sports dramas of its kind, the film doesn’t end in a miraculous victory on the mat. Instead, McCarthy focuses on the characters and the relationships we’re invested in.

Kyle’s mysterious past is uncovered and we are introduced to his estranged mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey). Their confrontation brings harrowing moments that one wishes McCarthy included a bit more of. But he isn’t pushing for the solemn mood of his earlier work and he makes it apparent. For every alarming conflict, there is a moment of jovial fun. With his most accessible work to date, McCarthy explores new territory while still sustaining the tight character work he is praised for, and the result is a winning concoction.

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