Writer/director (and sometimes actor) McCarthy's third feature, after indie hits The Station Agent and The Visitor, is another mild-mannered dramedy about unexpected friendships.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike, a down-on-his-luck New Jersey lawyer whose business is struggling almost as much as the high school wrestling team he coaches. After he makes a shady decision to become the "guardian" of a wealthy, elderly client, he gets more than he bargained for when the client's runaway grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer, a perfectly monosyllabic teen) tries to track down the grandfather he never met and discovers that the old man's been moved into a rest home.
That Kyle just happens to be an extraordinarily talented wrestler - the answer to Mike's prayers - is a gigantic plot contrivance, to be sure, but McCarthy presents it believably. As with his previous pictures, the strengths of Win Win lie in its thoughtful storyline, well-crafted characters, and fine acting. Amy Ryan, as Giamatti's wife Jackie, is typically effective in the sort of part that would fade into the background in a Ron Howard movie. Kudos to McCarthy for writing strong female characters; Ryan is every bit Giamatti's equal in this film.
There are two problems with Win Win, however: The first is Bobby Cannavale, playing Giamatti's best pal. Essentially rehashing his Station Agent role as an affable motormouth, Cannavale is clearly meant to inject some jocularity into this low-key soap opera, but he mostly just annoys. The second is - surprise! - my old Foreign Correspondents/Claustrophobia star Melanie Lynskey, who suddenly shows up in the third act as Kyle's neglectful, substance-abusing mother. (I'm not spoiling much; she appears in the trailer and her name is in the opening credits.)
Lynskey's character factors into the plot much as Orson Welles' Harry Lime does in The Third Man: For over an hour you never see or hear this woman, yet the toxic effect she's had on her son dominates the conversation over the first two acts. Kyle, an otherwise cool, easy-going kid, detests his mom, and his hatred spreads amongst Mike and his family as they learn how rotten a person she is. But after all that buildup, when she finally appears, it's just our cute little Mel, with her squeaky voice and baby face. Allowed to emote more than usual, she delivers a capable performance, but this is supposed to be a loathsome character, and frankly Lynskey is just too innately sweet to be convincing in the part.
If it seems like I'm being harsh on my former leading lady - and some of you may think I have reason to be - I'd like to think that I'd say the same thing even if I had no idea who she was. (There's no love lost anyway, as I haven't heard from Lynskey in years.) It's a lesson in how casting can make or break a story; after all, The Third Man wouldn't have worked without Welles' larger-than-life persona - imagine if Harry Lime turned up and was played by, say, Hume Cronyn. And with Amy Ryan in such close proximity in Win Win, it's hard not to compare Lynskey's wan presence to Ryan's own sensational work as a very similar character in Gone Baby Gone.
Anyway, Win Win is a nice little movie, pretty much impossible to dislike. But it just doesn't reach the emotional depths of McCarthy's first two films.