Despite Giamatti’s strong performance, cliché-ridden Win Win is lost cause

For a screenwriter who has always kept luck and chance so dear to his stories, writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s most recent effort has no element of surprise whatsoever.  He still attempts to tackle large themes among ordinary people (even in places as mundane as New Providence, New Jersey), but he is completely at a loss with Win Win.

McCarthy tells small-scale stories that usually manage to break through to mainstream audiences.  He gained much attention from his heartwarming The Station Agent and helped the often-overlooked Richard Jenkins earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination from his sophomore feature, The Visitor. In his third go-around, his characters are not as succinctly envisioned and his

In the film’s opening shot, the camera trails behind a plump, middle-aged Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti.  As he steadily jogs down a forest path, two younger men speed past him.  McCarthy visually (and obviously) tells the viewer that something will soon jump-start this man’s life.

Flaherty, a struggling lawyer, constantly meets with an elderly client named Leo (a quiet, heartfelt performance by Burt Young) who suffers from dementia. To keep him out of the state’s custody, while also benefiting financially, Flaherty becomes the old man’s guardian. Out of the nowhere, the grandson Leo didn’t realize he had, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up on the Flahertys’ doorstep and ends up staying longer than expected. Theirs is a home more welcoming than that of Kyle’s ex-drug addict mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who wants him back in order to collect a government check.

The film’s flaws can be summarized in the presentation and performance of its lead character. The troubled teenager proves to be a highly talented wrestler, but as the character gains depth, the actor becomes less functional. Shaffer becomes increasingly robotic in his line delivery.  Many scenes already lack enough drama and subtext, so Shaffer’s monotony merely exacerbates this. The uneven ensemble is not up to the task of elevating the subpar screenplay.

Before launching into his continuum of clichés, McCarthy promises a sense of drama.  He takes us into the daily life of a protagonist who could easily resemble any middle-aged man. But this tale of happenstance exists in a world where characters seem to already know their fate.  Its not surprising the series of coincidences always feel scripted.

Giamatti’s everyman looks–the face dominated by baggy eyes, the rotund stomach providing him an un-Hollywood physique–convey much more than the clunky and exposition-heavy script. The viewer is briefly shown the small details of Flaherty’s life that have led to the aforementioned bags and paunch, but the script quickly explains everything. A sense of Falherty’s exhaustion is authentically felt when the camera simply observes his behavior. Once people start speaking, though, we can already tell what they’ll say just from observing. Characters consistently tell, and never show.

Whereas McCarthy’s usual themes of chance encounters and people connecting at specific times in their lives emerge more naturally in his previous two films, these poignant story elements come off as unimaginative in Win Win.  Whether or not one believes in fate or pure luck, it is difficult to escape an awareness of how mechanized and conventional this filmmaker’s creations feel.  The narrative becomes more of a guessing game (an easy one, too) as characters take on robotic functions, in their behavior and dialogue as well.