When Irvin Kershner passed away last year, the headline over his obituary in The Hollywood Reporter read: “’Empire Strikes Back’ Director Irvin Kershner Dies.” Before George Lucas chose Kershner to direct the second “Star Wars” film, Kershner was a director of small films that focused on character and relationships and depended on the strength of Kershner’s stars (George C. Scott in “the Film Flam Man,” Barbra Streisand in “Up the Sandbox,” Faye Dunaway in “The Eyes of Laura Mars”) to carry the films. These were movies about people. The legendary critic Pauline Kael extolled the virtues of Kershner’s now forgotten 1970 film “Loving,” with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint, in a review entitled “Recognizable Human Behavior.”
Recognizable human behavior is exactly what was missing from Kershner’s post-Star Wars career (which included a James Bond caper, “Never Say Never Again,” and “RoboCop 2”), as it is, in fact, from most major Hollywood productions in the post-Star Wars era. Recognizable human behavior is found these days almost exclusively in independent films. When Hollywood gets hold of a small human-interest story—say, the story of a homeless young man who is taken in by a well-to-do Southern family, it turns it into a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock. This is not a necessarily a bad thing. “The Blind Side” was a superior entertainment; but it was nipped and tucked and polished to such a high sheen that, ultimately, the family depicted in the movie bore as much resemblance to a real family as the Andersons on “Father Knows Best.”
Now comes “Win Win,” a small independent feature from writer and director Tom McCarthy that is, in many respects, like a low-rent version of “The Blind Side.” It has won much critical acclaim. A friend of mine wondered, however, why the critics were making such a fuss about this little film. “What’s the big deal with ‘Win Win”?” he asked. Well, the big deal about “Win Win” is that it is an American movie that doesn’t feature aliens or transformers or superheroes or vampires or secret agents or wizards or werewolves. It doesn’t have car chases or explosions. It isn’t in 3-D. The big deal about “Win Win” is that it’s a small picture that simply shows us, in an entertaining way, ordinary people leading ordinary lives—recognizable human behavior, which, it turns out, in this day and age, is a very special effect.
In “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti plays an unsuccessful lawyer named Mike Flaherty (when was the last time you saw an unsuccessful lawyer in a movie or on TV?), who helps coach a high school wrestling team in his ample spare time. One of Mike’s clients is an elderly man, Leo Polpar, played with heart-breaking empathy by Burt Young. The State of New Jersey wants to put Leo in a state-run nursing facility; Leo just wants to live in his own home. Because he needs the money that goes with the position, Mike convinces a judge to appoint him as Leo’s guardian by promising to keep Leo in his home. Mike breaks his promise, but no sooner has he installed Leo in a nursing home than Leo’s grandson, Kyle, shows up. Kyle has run away from Leo’s estranged daughter, Cindy. Kyle is hoping to move in with his grandfather, but, since Mike has moved Leo to the nursing home, Kyle ends up living with Mike, who then discovers that Kyle is actually a highly accomplished—what else?—high school wrestler.
“Win Win” is, essentially, “The Blind Side” turned upside down. Instead of dealing with a glamour sport like football, in “Win Win,” we get high school wrestling. Instead of having the young athlete taken in by a wealthy, successful family and given his own room in a big, expensively furnished house, in “Win Win,” the young wrestler is taken in by a family that is barely scraping by and that consigns him to a couch in its semi-finished basement. Instead of having the “adoptive” family motivated by charity and religious values, in “Win Win,” the family is motivated, at least in part, by the father’s need to cover up an ethical violation. “The Blind Side” is a glossy, star-driven Hollywood entertainment (and it is very entertaining), albeit based on a true story. The story of “Win Win” is entirely fictional, but it feels true. Even the running gags—the pipes in Flaherty’s office are in constant need of repair, but Flaherty can’t afford to fix them—attest to the fact that the film is dealing with characters who are, like the pipes, always on the verge of breaking down.
But the ordinariness of the lives depicted in “Win Win” is exactly the film’s strength. The people of “Win Win” are imperfect. They make mistakes. They lie or, at least, dissemble. They are not always motivated by noble sentiments and sometimes have purely mercenary interests. Mike takes advantage of Leo for a paltry $1500 a month, and Kyle’s mother tries to leverage Mike for the very same money; but, even if their actions aren’t laudable, they are always understandable—and, to use a term reportedly popular in Hollywood, relatable. Despite its title, “Win Win” isn’t about winners. It’s about survivors. In the final wrestling match shown in the film, a scrawny teenager makes it through to the end of his first-ever match by simply staying off the mat. For him, just getting to the end of the match without being disqualified is a victory.
In this sense, in the end, all the film’s major characters are winners, and the filmmakers provide a happy ending for them all. Of course, what counts as a happy ending, in these circumstances, is a relative matter. For example, although Flaherty appears to escape losing his license to practice law as a result of his ethical lapses—he isn’t disqualified, his law practice doesn’t become any more lucrative, and he has to take a second job. Still, this provides some relief from the money pressures, and he is able to feel more secure in his marriage and in his work. “Win Win” is ultimately a story about not losing—not losing your home, not losing your family, not losing your job, not losing your dignity, not losing your purpose in life. It’s about making it to the end without being disqualified, which for most of us, it turns out, is really is a pretty big deal.