You would think that with all the schlubby malcontents Paul Giamatti has played over the years, his act would grow old. But here's the thing: It's not an act, or to be more precise, it's not shtick. Giamatti's gallery of grumps, from Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor" to the melancholy Pinot sipper in "Sideways" to Barney in "Barney's Version," are all grumpy in their own way. And let's not forget that Founding Father sourpuss, John Adams.
In writer-director Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," Giamatti is playing yet another variation on a theme, and yet the performance is absolutely fresh. His Mike Flaherty is a New Jersey lawyer whose practice, unbeknown to his otherwise wily wife (Amy Ryan), is on the skids. As the court-appointed attorney to Leo Poplar, a widower with early-stage dementia wishing to remain at home, Mike discovers that, if he is appointed Leo's caregiver, he is entitled to a $1,500 monthly stipend. (He claims Leo's surviving relatives can't be reached.) Mike can't resist putting himself up for the job, but, instead of returning Leo to his home, he relocates him to a nursing facility.
By doing so, Mike is smudging his moral boundaries, but McCarthy doesn't take an accusatory tone. Leo is arguably safer in the nursing home, and Mike does care about him – just not quite enough to carry out his wishes. It's a gambit that under normal circumstances might have gone undetected (though it's unclear in the movie why the court doesn't follow up on the case).
But then, out of nowhere, Leo's teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), on the run from his absentee mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), shows up at Leo's house looking for a place to crash. Because Leo and his daughter are long estranged, Kyle has never met his grandfather. Not knowing what else to do, and worried that his ruse will be uncovered, Mike offers Kyle the basement of his home.
For Mike, Kyle's appearance is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, this closed-off kid with bleached-blond hair and back tattoos is a wild card, especially when his mother tracks him down. But then again, Mike's big release in life is coaching his former high school's dismal wrestling team, and it turns out that Kyle is ranked high in his weight class. In short order Mike enrolls Kyle in school.
Giamatti knows how to play characters in conflict not only with the world but with themselves. In "Win Win," Mike can't believe his mounting good fortune but he is always on guard against its sudden loss. He has the perpetually baffled look of someone who is never sure if he is about to be anointed or body slammed. He sneaks cigarettes in the alley and accelerates his motormouth whenever he's in danger of being found out. He's transparently anxious, but one of the movie's smart touches is that just about everybody else is, too. That's one reason it takes so long for him to get caught. Everyone is busy dithering with their own manias.
Mike's best buddy, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), for example, whose ex-wife left him for the contractor he hired to fix his house, is a jittery bundle of resentments. (He becomes apoplectic at the thought of the wretched lovebirds sharing the new jacuzzi.) Both men are live wires, but Terry's sparks are showier. Then there's unhappy Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), another wrestling coach, who has the long face of a basset hound.
It's only a matter of time before Cindy shows up in town, looking for a way to cut in on Leo's assets. There's a comic inevitability to all these happenstances. First Kyle appears and, for Mike, he turns out to be a godsend. Then his mother shows up to take it all away. It's as if the fates were toying with Mike. He's enough of a good-time fatalist to appreciate the sick joke.
He also knows, in the end, what he has to do to set things right. To the film's credit, Mike's comeuppance isn't portrayed as ennobling. Neither is his conversion simply another tactic, another dodge. It's just something he needs to do, and when he finally comes around, his essential decency, which was always glinting in the background, shines through. Mike may be a lousy wrestler but he untangles himself like a champ. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)