Around this time in 2009, we had “Adventureland,” a wise coming-of-age story that was marketed as a dumb summer slackers film. About a year later, we had “Greenberg,” a Ben Stiller vehicle that dipped into some disturbing depths of neurosis. As of last week, we have “Win Win,” the first comedic feature from writer/director Todd McCarthy. It seems that — just as we expect a mindless blockbuster sequel every summer, and at least one schmaltzy biopic come Oscar season — it’s now a springtime tradition to get a dark comedy falsely advertised as lighthearted indie fare.
If that’s the case, “Win Win” exemplifies the diminishing returns of that tradition. Where it differs from the likes of “Adventureland” or “Greenberg” is that its content doesn’t offer any surprises. The trailer alone pretty much establishes all of the film’s light elements, eventual darker elements, feel-good story arc and various character quirks. Not only that, but the film’s eye-rolling opening scene shows the protagonist running by himself in the woods, unable to keep up with other runners and barely managing his way down the endless path. It’s an appropriate start to a movie that, for all its sweetness and occasional hilarity, is far too concerned with audience hand-holding.
That struggling protagonist is Mike, played by Paul Giamatti, who has had a hard time lately finding a movie worthy of his talents. Mike is a small-time attorney who, for some reason, also coaches a high school wrestling team along with his older friend Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor, the film’s deadpan savior). His private practice is barely staying afloat, his wrestling team is losing every single match and he hardly seems satisfied with the family man routine he has with his two daughters and wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). Oh yeah, and there’s also a faulty boiler in the basement of his office that is about to explode. In case you can’t put two and two together, the boiler loudly clangs every time Mike has a tense moment at work. Clever, right?
To help alleviate some of his pressures, Mike agrees to personally look after Leo (Burt Young), a senile client of his who is about to lose his house. Mike does this for his own benefit, not that of his client — the guardianship earns him a tidy sum from commission checks, whether or not he actually helps Leo much. It’s a scam that’s supposed to go smoothly until Kyle (Alex Schaffer), Leo’s estranged and disaffected grandson, suddenly appears, having run from his drug-addict mother and now searching for a new home.
Mike and Jackie take him in, but struggle to adapt to his rebellious behavior (which is apparently best communicated by the fact that he smokes and calls adults by their first names). There will, of course, eventually be a breakthrough. For instance, Jackie charms Kyle by showing him a Jon Bon Jovi tattoo she got in her youth. It would probably take much more than that to win over such a desolate teen, but in a film like this, it makes sense that people would best bond by trading quirky character traits.
Kyle, for all his mild-mannered apathy, surprisingly flourishes in one thing: wrestling. He attends a practice with Mike’s pathetic team and almost instantly proves himself a star player by any standard, not just theirs. His pent-up anger can be constructively channeled through the sport — it gives him a sense of control that he lacks otherwise, and that Mike openly envies. Control is something that every character will desire once this new happy union is inevitably shaken up when Kyle’s old life catches up with him.
Things get ugly towards the end of the film, and not strictly in a narrative sense. Schaffer is a talented newcomer, who very smoothly expresses his character’s buried angst. Yet when the script ultimately calls for him to stretch beyond that relaxed attitude, there’s nothing smooth about the result.
The same could be said for most things that the script eventually calls for, actually. For a small, human story, so much of “Win Win” feels unnatural; there’s too much craft to how these characters act, relate and deal with each new conflict. The material itself isn’t hopeless — for a long time, especially during Kyle’s rise through the wrestling ranks, the film has no problem with laughs or charm. But it’s hard to keep caring about a story that’s preemptive at every turn when it could have been perceptive.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.