The character actor made it clear to all in 2004 with Alexander Payne’s wine country dramedy Sideways that, while he may not be a conventional leading man, he can carry the ball to the goal line. A year later he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005)
Giamatti won an Emmy for his portrayal of our nation’s second President in HBO’s exceptional mini-series Jon Adams (2008). He is presently at work on the upcoming Civil War mini-series To Appomattox.
Win Win is his most recent film of above average intelligence, fresh on the heels of last year’s endearingly thoughtful and well-crafted Barney’s Version.
Get this exchange after Giamatti’s ‘Mike,’ a family man and high school wrestling coach struggling to keep his business above water, learns a friend is doing well in the stock market:
“Just got a figure out a new strategy, right? Anything else you can do for money?” Asks ‘Mike’s’ pal, ‘Terry’ (played with gusto my The Station Agent’s Bobby Cannavale).
“What am I gonna do, bar tend?” Responds ‘Mike.’ “I’m a lawyer. I’m not some freakin’ scumbag. I help out old people. No offense, but you know your pal – all he cares about is money.”
“Yeah. But that’s why he makes it.”
“No shit. Thanks for the update.”
The stress of the financial dilemma and the mere thought of having to do something drastic drops ‘Mike’ (Giamatti) to his knees – hyperventilating from his heavy burden.
That thought becomes a decision in the courtroom when ‘Mike’ seizes an opportunity to convince a judge that he can be the legal guardian of his client, ‘Leo’ (Burt Young), thus insuring that Giamatti gain a $1,500 monthly housing stipend. A small amount of money, in retrospect, for such an enormous weight on a man’s conscience.
The wisdom and savvy of Win Win is how the unscrupulous legal act unfolds, beginning with how he breaks the news to his wife, played with her trademark honesty by Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Wire). When Giamatti mentions nonchalantly after church that he is now the legal guardian of his client, she questions him repeatedly about his neglect in consulting her. It’s that kind of interaction that separates this film from the usual I Dream of Jeanie type of contrived plots we are usually subjected to in this sort of “comedy.”
The plot really thickens when they swing by ‘Leo’s’ house to flip a switch and find a teen runaway on the stoop. His name is ‘Kyle’ and he came to live with his grandfather. DOH!
But even this unexpected arrival works out for ‘Mike.’ Not only does he get the monthly care taking money from ‘Leo,’ the teen runaway just so happens to be a former wrestling champion. Hence the title Win Win.
Not so fast, though. What’s that about the tangled webs we weave when we seek to lie and deceive?
Directed by actor Thomas McCarthy (The Wire), Win Win is anchored firmly by Giamatti, an actor who is not only extremely comfortable in his own skin, but manages to find the truth and humanity in his circumstances as deftly as anyone working in films today.
He is complimented beautifully by Ryan. Her wifely and maternal instincts give the story an intellect and maturity that other films of this genre usually dumb down or shrill up. Ryan was nominated for an Oscar for her gritty performance in Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007). She did not win. She will win the trophy soon. Bet on it.
The unexpected surprise in Win Win is the young “actor” playing ‘Kyle.’ Alex Shaffer was a high school wrestling champion in New Jersey until he broke his L-5 vertebrae. A rough break.
As is so often the case, when one door closes another opens. A lose–win, if you will, resulting in an effectively detached, but extremely likeable and vulnerable performance from the neophyte.
Shaffer not only holds his own with Giamatti and Ryan, he even steals a couple of scenes. No small task considering the chops on the block. He is quirky without being precious and a real natural in the listening and responding department.
Win Win is about the domino effect decisions have on our lives. It’s about coming correct – making lemonade out of lemons – and ultimately doing the right thing, even when you’re dealt a losing hand.