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‘Win Win’

Sometimes the student is also the teacher

by Kaori Shoji

The last time I saw Paul Giamatti in a lead role was in “Sideways” (2004), when he played a middle-aged guy who stole money from his aging mother to winery-hop in Napa Valley. Now Giamatti resembles a trusty musical instrument, fine-tuned to the exact specifications of what can only be described as Giamatti-ness. He’s now 45 years old, but it feels like he’s been playing that guy — the paunchy, balding, self-indulgent, easily wounded midlife crisis guy — forever. The tides will turn, the global climate will change, but Paul Giamatti is set in stone.

Though at times, even an actor such as Giamatti will get a version update, because in “Win Win,” he’s not just a 40-something loser looking for ways to cuddle his fragile ego. In keeping with the times, Giamatti’s character Mike Flaherty is less obsessed with himself as how to pay the mortgage and keep his family of four fed, clothed and happy, all at the same time. Mike is a middling elder-care lawyer, permanently strapped for cash and keeping his financial woes secret from his improbably hot wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two young daughters. But the strain is starting to tear a hole in his gut. Plus, his moonlighting job adds to the agony: Mike coaches for the local New Jersey high school wrestling team and they’re so bad it’s not even funny.

And then Mike makes a wilful ethical slip at a court proceeding that basically amounts to swindling his client Leo (Burt Young, best known for playing Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie), who is beset with Alzheimer’s and refusing to move out of his home. If all goes well, it could mean a monthly windfall of an extra 1,500 bucks for Mike’s household. If it doesn’t, Mike could very well lose his practice. That bit of wrong-doing drops a ton of guilt on Mike’s already considerable pile of personal stress.

To calm his jangling nerves, he goes jogging. His preschool daughter, Abby, asks Jackie: “Where’s daddy?” “He’s running.” “From what?” Poor Mike. However far he may run (and he can’t even do that, because of a panic attack) it seems like all his problems come catching up in shiny new running shoes.

The landscape alters, however, when Leo’s teenage grandson blows in from Ohio, announcing that he has come to live with his grandfather. Too bad — Leo has been shunted into a home by Mike and denies all knowledge of a grandson anyway. Sighing wearily (but inwardly scared that the kid will discover his indiscretions), Mike takes the quiet and morose Kyle (Alex Shaffer) into his home, despite Jackie’s reluctance to care for a 17-year-old boy. But Kyle goes above and beyond everyone’s expectations when he reveals some jaw-dropping wrestling moves.

Mike realizes that what he has on his hands is a veritable gem, and his two best friends Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and the gloomy Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), who share his coaching duties, are jolted out of their usual mode of bored despair. “What’s it like to be as good as you are?” Mike asks Kyle. Shrugging his shoulders, Kyle replies: “It feels like I’m in control.” Mike says wistfully: “Must be nice.”

Thomas McCarthy’s two previous films were also about orderly lives being disrupted and then enhanced by the appearance of total strangers. In many ways, “Win Win” echoes McCarthy’s “The Visitor” (2007), in which a lonely widower (Richard Jenkins) is inadvertently forced to share his Manhattan apartment with a pair of African immigrants. In doing so, he sheds much of the self-protective snobbishness and social prejudices that had actually prevented him from being happy.

Mike is a little like that. He had conditioned himself into thinking that aching discontent is his natural state; but after encountering Kyle, Mike is surprised to discover unmined aspects of a personality that he had long given up on, such as generosity, loyalty and, yes, even sincerity.

There are no heroes in “Win Win,” but it celebrates the triumph of ordinary people coming together to do the right thing. Not a note of cynicism sours the story and you come away liking everyone in it — especially Mike, because Giamatti wears his persona like an unlaundered hoodie: snug and soft and smelling just like him. And Shaffer, who in real life was also a high school wrestling champ, turns in a terrific and touching performance. OK, the ending is a little too pat and rounded out, but these days the very absence of excessive dramatics has the sweetness of a summertime sprinkler shower.