High-school wrestling comedy avoids clichés, reveals hard truths
★ ★ ★ ★ (4/5 stars)
Rated R/115 min.
During my sophomore year at Ka‘ahumanu Hou High School, I was on the wrestling team and can say, with complete certainty, that I was the worst wrestler in the history of the sport. In addition to being an inept athlete, I wore a shiny purple singlet, which made my lack of ringside skill both hilarious and ghastly.
Though it’s an experience I’d probably do best to forget, I still have a souvenir from my wrestling days: a team T-shirt featuring two Greco-Roman wrestlers and the phrase “Civilized Mayhem.” Those words popped into my head while watching Win-Win, a little comedy with a big heart.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer in New Jersey who also coaches a wrestling team with a reputation for losing. Along comes Kyle (Alex Shaffer, perfectly cast in his film debut), a quiet teen with a troubled home life. Kyle winds up living with—and being accepted by—Mike’s family. Once Mike discovers that Kyle is a wrestling savant, he gets him on the team and enjoys a winning streak for the first time in his life.
After a slow start, the film picks up steam and emerges as both a great character study and an amusing depiction of high school sports. The wrestling scenes are funny and well-choreographed, but the film stays rooted in reality.
Just when the ending feels too tidy, the screenwriters throw in a terrific, honest closing scene that reveals how everyone in the story must pay for their actions, righteous or not.
Giamatti—a reliably wonderful actor—makes Mike’s strengths and weaknesses relatable, even when he’s hard to root for. Amy Ryan is excellent as his headstrong and whip-smart wife and Shaffer, a real life high school wrestling champ, is utterly authentic, both on the mat and as a sweet but introverted, emotionally wounded kid. Bobby Cannavale is hilarious as Mike’s goofball best friend, as is Jeffrey Tambor as a clueless co-coach. The subplot involving Kyle’s druggie mother (Melanie Lynsky) and his not-all-there Grandpa (Burt Young) weigh the last act down with melodrama, but they don’t diminish the movie.
Writer/director Thomas McCarthy also made The Secret Agent and The Visitor, understated, character-driven comedies that avoided formulaic Hollywood contrivances. He’s repeated the trick here—finding humor in small, quiet moments and gently reminding us that life can be hard and scary. As someone who once donned the purple unitard, I can relate. ■