I should begin by warning readers of a sensitive disposition that this blog post contains spoilers pertaining to the movie Win Win, and some strong language, as well as brief, positive remarks about the HBO television series The Wire, which has never knowingly been under-praised.
Many screenwriters include in their work a single line or speech that doubles as a mission statement or a setting-out of the thematic stall. In the case of Win Win, that comes in the form of a declaration wthat, when quoted out of context, would seem to suggest an action movie with a body count numerically commensurate to its running time. The line is: "Whatever the fuck it takes." And yet this movie is gentle to the point of being wan.
That line is spoken by Kyle, a taciturn but sweet-natured teenage wrestling champion whose jet-black eyebrows clash noisily with his vanilla shag-cut. On a literal level he uses it to explain how he liberates himself from an apparently inescapable hold by a competitor: he imagines that he is having his head held under water, and does whatever the fuck it takes to save himself. Kyle is played by Alex Shaffer, a wrestler in real life who makes a beautifully low-key screen debut here. I hope sincerely that Fast Times at Ridgemont High is never remade. But, if it is, the miscreants responsible will have in Shaffer a ready-made Spiccoli (the amiable stoner played in that 1982 comedy by a goofy Sean Penn).
Kyle isn't the focus of Win Win, but rather a catalyst for change and hope and a fuzzy kind of redemption in the life of the shrugging, middle-aged, almost-deflated New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty, played by Brad Pitt.
Had you there, didn't I? Of course, Pitt would never get as far as auditioning. It's common knowledge that Paul Giamatti has the "unremarkable middle-aged disappointment" market all sewn-up. Rightly so -- he can find in any character new gradations of low-level misery and anxiety (he even dredges some up when playing a version of himself in Cold Souls). Pitt and Johnny Depp and all the other pretty-boys can just go whistle.
So Giamatti is an asset to a film that is mostly compassionate and intelligent but in many ways quite obvious; he keeps Mike real, even when the movie comes begging, cap in hand, for even more sympathy and understanding toward the character than we have already given. The movie, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (who made The Station Agent and The Visitor, and is therefore Mr Sensitive Indie Comedy-Drama), draws some strange distinctions between its characters. It encourages us to narrow our eyes judgementally toward Kyle's errant, rehab-fresh mother (played by Melanie Lynskey with a vitality that resists our scorn) but gives Mike a free pass for conning the courts and manipulating a senile client.
Behaviour adheres to gender lines: Mike's tough-cookie wife (played by Amy Ryan, who is, like McCarthy himself, an alumnus of The Wire) is fiercely good and true, but Kyle's mother is not be trusted any further than she could stagger in a drug-dazed stupor. Men, on the other hand, flounder somewhere in between, being neither reprehensible nor angelic, but simply rounded and fallible human beings. McCarthy should know from his time on the fifth and final season of The Wire, if from nowhere else, that it doesn't have to be that way; his own character in that series, the extravagantly deceitful journalist Scott Templeton, never seemed less than complicatedly human, no matter how low he sunk.
But we'll let that slide right now. What I love about Win Win is its ending (spoiler alert!), which shows a maturity and pragmatism that is vital in life, but with which precious few films have any truck. If Win Win feels for much of its length like an above-average TV movie, the ending is a tiny wedge of Claire Denis.
It closes with Mike having effectively thrown in the towel -- due to various factors, including the debts that had led him to commit fraud, he relinquishes his practice and is shown instead in the final shot tending bar. The beauty of this is that it is a realistic decision, made by an intelligent man who has exhausted other avenues, and supported implicitly by the movie. "Whatever the fuck it takes" sounds macho and brutish, but in this final turnaround, McCarthy shows us that it can also mean swallowing your pride, walking away, compromising your dreams.
Mike doesn't end the film as a failure; he descends the career ladder because that is what he must do to care for his family. This is his particular interpretation of "Whatever the fuck it takes." Win Win doesn't contain many surprises, but that ending is revolutionary in the context of what American cinema usually tells us about how to live our lives.
Win Win is currently on release