By David Edelstein
The great comedy "Win Win" resides in what I call the Little Miss Sunshine State, that border region between mainstream and "edgy" independent cinema.
"Little Miss Sunshine" had familiar actors but not big stars. It was heartwarming but with F-bombs and addiction and sudden death. It was a go-for-it movie, but the competition turned out not to matter. What mattered was a fractured family came together.
With "Win Win," director Thomas McCarthy becomes Little Miss Sunshine State's leading citizen. He's an actor - you might have caught him in "Little Fockers," in which case you have my sympathies.
In his own films, McCarthy charts that most moving of journeys - from isolation to the bosom of a surrogate family.
His blessedly serene 2003 comedy "The Station Agent" featured Peter Dinklage as a dwarf protagonist who arrives in a small town, silent and unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down, and attracts a band of outcasts who warm up his world.
In McCarthy's "The Visitor," Richard Jenkins is an emotionally dead professor who gets thrown together with illegal immigrants - and lo, he finds a new family, too.
McCarthy's "Win Win" stars Paul Giamatti at his most likably schlubby. He plays Mike, a New Jersey lawyer with two daughters who can't tell his wife, played by Amy Ryan, they're broke. He is a heart attack waiting to happen.
On impulse, he does something dumb - becomes the guardian of a near-senile client played by Burt Young, basically to steal $1,500 a month.
But then he has to take in the old man's damaged grandson Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer, who's on the run from his druggie mom.
What I love is how the edge in Ryan's voice seems to cut through the fatty resonance in Giamatti's and goad him into action.
"Win Win" is a symphony of marvelous voices, especially when the kid turns out to be a champion wrestler who whips some life into the pathetic high school team Giamatti coaches - literally, with a slap on the head.
That requested slap? It's funny, but the subtext is horrifying. Kyle's wrestling talents seem to be fueled by abuse.
There's tension all through "Win Win": We fear Mike will get caught for his fraud, yet on some level we want him to be caught, for his soul's sake.
But what about the family that now includes this helpless kid? A win-win scenario seems impossible.
Unless, of course, you believe the title ... and in the Little Miss Sunshine State.
For more info:
The Projectionist (David Edelstein's movie blog)