As a writer/director (he also acts), Tom McCarthy specialises in the regeneration of social misfits.
The Station Agent has an antisocial dwarf (Peter Dinklage, who else?) moving into a disused New Jersey rail station before gradually succumbing to friendship and love.
In The Visitor, Richard Jenkins plays an emotionally withdrawn college prof who rediscovers his humanity through the influence of the young Muslim couple he finds squatting in his NYC apartment.
And in Win Win, McCarthy casts Paul Giamatti – who does dysfunctional better than most – as Mike Flaherty, an inept attorney who also coaches the world’s worst school wrestling team. His assistant coach Stephen is played by Jeffrey Tambor, reigning champion of depressive baldness.
It’s a promising line-up and Win Win sets off in fine style. But midway through it crashes into a howlingly contrived plot device and never recovers.
Mike has a senile elderly client, Leo (Burt Young), who wants to be allowed to stay in his home.
Discovering he can collect $1,500 a month for looking after the old boy, Mike has himself made Leo’s legal guardian and then cheats by shunting him into a nursing home. (This apparently comes free, which seems improbable – especially in the US.)
Then Leo’s moody, inarticulate grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, so Mike takes him in only to discover that he just happens to be – guess what? – a natural champion wrestler.
From here on it’s all downhill to the anodyne ending, where everything’s made OK with a minimum of fuss (or drama) thanks to his wife Jackie’s (Amy Ryan, sadly wasted in the exasperated but loving spouse role) implausible understanding.
There are pleasures along the way: Giamatti’s a delight to watch whatever he’s doing, and Shaffer makes Kyle an endearing character, if you can overlook his inherent unlikeliness. But it’s not enough to compensate for an overcooked plot.
Some accomplished turns, and the mood of downbeat quirkiness has its appeal. Plot contrivances scupper it though, and given McCarthy’s track record it’s a letdown.