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Win Win

[Rating: 3/5]

“Win Win” is the film I’m going to recommend to the next person who tells me how much they loved “The Blind Side.”  It’s essentially the same plot, but without the troubling racial dynamics, the unsettling shots of luxurious wealth, the general heavy-handedness, and Sandra Bullock.

Paul Giamatti is a struggling lawyer who makes himself the guardian of a rich old man so that he can take home the monthly allowance, then puts the old man in a home and forgets about him.  It’s possible (but not necessary) to view “Win Win” as a kind of moral fable, and within that framework, this is the sin for which Giamatti will do penance as the movie progresses.  Alex Shaffer is the old man’s grandson, and he turns up on Giamatti’s doorstep, thinking his grandpa lives there. Giamatti and his wife (Amy Ryan) take the troubled kid in and love on him.  Turns out he’s an all-star wrestler. Did I mention that Giamatti coaches the high school wrestling team, and they’re terrible?   See how this all sounds familiar?  But it’s executed as if the material isn’t as tired as it ought to be, and the result is pretty winning, I must say.

Shaffer is a nonprofessional actor who was cast because he could wrestle, and his performance is pretty monotone, which mostly works to counterbalance the naked sentimentality of the material. But, just as in “Blind Side,” this also makes the hero of the story look like a blank canvas upon which everyone around him paint their ambitions. Ryan wants to do a good deed for a decent kid.  Giamatti’s best friend (Bobby Canavale, a McCarthy favorite who is always fun to watch) who makes himself an assistant coach on the wrestling team, just wants to be associated with a winner.  And the kid’s drug addict mom shows up and wants her son back, but mostly so she can look like she’s pulling her life together, take custody of her dad, and get those monthly allowances for herself.

In the middle of all that is Giamatti, and it seems like he’d really like to do the right thing, if he can figure out what that is, amidst all the voices around him.  He knows he’s taking advantage of the grandpa, and probably the grandson as well, but doesn’t want anyone to get hurt by any of it.  In the end, he makes a sacrificial choice to take care of people around him, an arrangement that benefits everyone but him.   Except that now he’s not taking advantage of anybody, and everyone’s better off because of his hard work.  He’s come full circle as a character, and maybe that’s the point.

“Win Win” is carefully handled material, as if these veteran actors (and one amateur) and sure-handed director know just how close they are to slipping off into Hallmark Channel cheesiness.  It’s not as good as McCarthy’s last two films, both of which are personal favorites.  But it walks along the edge of the cheese surprisingly well, and, as a result, turns out to be a film the indie auteurs and Barbra Streisand fans might be able to watch together without anyone sighing or rolling their eyes.

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