The new film from writer-director Tom McCarthy explores themes he featured in his acclaimed earlier films The Station Agent and The Visitor: issues of family connections and choices ordinary people make in everyday life. Here's a look at the bittersweet comedy Win Win.
"What is it like to be as good as you are?"
"It feels like I'm in control of everything, you know?"
"It must be nice."
Mike Flaherty is an attorney in a small American town where his practice barely brings in enough money to support his family.
A decent and ethical guy, Mike bends the rules in order to get a much-needed payment from an elderly client who has no family willing to care for him. It seems like a harmless enough choice, but the consequences mount up when Kyle, Mr. Poplar's teenaged grandson, unexpectedly shows up.
Paul Giamatti, Clare Foley II, and Amy Ryan in "Win Win"
Mike's wife insists they take care of Kyle until the situation is sorted out. And, it turns out, the teenager is a talented wrestler who becomes a valued member of the high school team that Mike coaches part-time.
It should be a "Win Win" situation: that is, good for everyone involved. However, the secret that lawyer Mike is keeping from everyone because he needs the income from his client's care threatens to bring down his family and legal career.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty. He says the role was complex because the character is so ordinary.
From left: Amy Ryan, Paul Giamatti, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win"
"It was a tricky part because the guy was content and not kind of emotionally extreme and things like that, which I'm more used to doing," explains Giamatti. "The challenge was trying to play somebody content, happy with his life, decent, kind of a good natured person, all of these things without it appearing vapid.
"I thought the story and what he was trying to do in this was really interesting: the portrait of suburban life and then all the sort of complications in these peoples' lives, people slightly morally compromising themselves, " he adds.
Earlier films by writer and director Tom McCarthy focused on individuals who tried to withdraw from life. With Win Win, the filmmaker says he wanted to highlight how vital it is to cultivate and keep relationships with other people.
Director Tom McCarthy, Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer on the set of "Win Win"
"In many ways this movie was the inverse of my earlier films where [in Win Win] we have a guy who is completely involved in his community, with the team and in every which way probably overextended to some extent, considering the financial burden he had to deal with and how that might change," explains McCarthy. "As a filmmaker and a storyteller, I was interested in exploring that: just a busier life and more full life, as opposed to someone who is living on the fringe."
McCarthy decided to cast a real high school wrestling champion with no previous acting experience in the role of the film's "loner," Kyle.
"I decided early on that I wanted to get a wrestler and help him to learn how to act, as opposed to going the other way around, getting an actor and teaching him how to wrestle," he explains. "I'm a big sports nut and I can't stand it when I see a movie with sports and I don't believe that the actor playing the role is actually proficient in the sport. "
He chose Alex Shaffer who, in his acting debut, holds his own opposite veteran actors Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, who plays Mike's patient, but skeptical wife.
"It was cool working with actors like this," Shaffer says. "At the time, I didn't really realize how big of a deal it was, but now I know it's certainly something special."
It's a "Win Win" situation for the young co-star. Shaffer is now studying acting and plans to pursue it as a career.