'Wire' actor Tom McCarthy displays his humor and depth as a director in the indie hit, 'Win Win'

He crafts a winning comedy-drama about the effect of the recession on a high school wrestling coach

  • Director Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti talk on the set of "Win Win."
Director Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti talk on the set of "Win… (Kimberly Wright, 20th Century…)
April 01, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Writer-director Tom McCarthy says that when he began working on "Win Win," the hook for him was high-school wrestling. "I thought — 'Wow! What an interesting thing to explore.' I wondered, if I was to expand from there with a story, where would it lead?"

McCarthy didn't want to make another rah-rah sports film. Barack Obama had just been elected president. Everywhere people were speaking about restoring the American Dream. "We were hearing a lot about the middle class," McCarthy says. "I wanted to know: Who is really in the middle class? How do they define themselves? What are they really dealing with, and how is that playing out? In many ways, it's playing out against common perceptions — i.e., we think a lawyer's fine, he's got a good business. But lawyers are shuttering their offices all the time."

So McCarthy went on a quest to find the heart, soul and humor of a group that had become the center of too many slogans. The result is this deeply funny and moving recession tale, starring Paul Giamatti as a suburban New Jersey lawyer, family man and high-school wrestling coach. It has racked up big numbers at box offices in New York and Los Angeles.

McCarthy is delighted that it's opening in Baltimore on Friday. "I should have a special place — a special throne for me in Baltimore!," he says jokingly over the phone. "I've done both the really good and really bad of Baltimore."

He's referring to his alternate career as one of America's best character actors. He played Scott Templeton, the careerist Baltimore Sun reporter HBO fans loved to hate in the final season of "The Wire" (2008). Ten years before, straight out of the Yale School of Drama, he won the lead role of a profoundly troubled young man who strives to do the right things in the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe."

McCarthy is delighted to hear that Tyler, already Baltimore's most celebrated novelist, is currently a contender for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. "Her books — they can be a bit like Norman Rockwell paintings," he says. He means that as a compliment. "On the surface they seem one thing, but under the surface there's something operating that is much darker and more honest."

Think of "Win Win" as McCarthy's own attempt to find the contemporary truth in Norman Rockwell scenes like high school sports meets and Sunday church.

In "Win Win," Giamatti's small-town lawyer-coach, Mike Flaherty, is a caring father and husband. But he's too Old School for his own good. He doesn't want to worry his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), with his fear that he can't maintain his office and pay their bills. On his own, he takes some drastic measures. He assumes the legal guardianship of an elderly client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), solely to collect the monthly fee that comes with making Poplar his ward.

Poplar wants to keep living in his own house. Flaherty says he can make that happen — and the judge believes him. But the lawyer immediately puts the man into a senior-care facility. We root for everything to come out right in the end because McCarthy and Giamatti wring every bit of humor and emotion from the hero's mixture of decency and deception. We root even harder when Poplar's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up on Poplar's old doorstep and turns out to be a dynamite wrestler.

McCarthy decided to "let audiences witness [Mike's broken promise], have them reconcile themselves to it, or not, and then forget about it — much as I think Mike forgets about it. When we do something like Mike does in 'Win Win,' it's very rare that we live with it day in and day out. I think we're very good at compartmentalizing — putting it in its place and saying, 'OK, I did that, it's done, we should move on.' Much like Mike does, I wanted the audience to forget about it and get caught up in all the positive things that spin out of this misstep. Then they have to deal with it down the line in a way that isn't quite so black-and-white."

The movie's comedy and drama thrive on its juicy dialogue. McCarthy's deft use of profanity wakes up every member of the audience. In the opening minutes of "Win Win," even college kids spring to attention when the Flahertys' daughter, Abby, quietly uses her mom's favorite curse word.

"Right from the beginning," McCarthy says, "the language isn't just about getting a laugh — it's about what gets passed down and what gets heard. It's about what gets learnt." But McCarthy's words are sometimes just hilarious. Viewers guffaw and even applaud whenever Mike's excitable best friend and assistant coach, Terry Delfino (Bobby Cannavale), erupts into barroom talk on mats or in the locker room.

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