Win Win is a Win Win

Imagine my frustration. The whole point of this blog is to point an accusing finger at the sorry state of movie-making, to take out, as it were, the Hollywood trash. The along comes Win Win, a disarming and truly funny comedy. It’s a small movie, which is one of its charms, a movie clearly made for a price, and yet it surprises you at every turn.

Mike Flaherty is a down-on-his-luck lawyer who seizes an opportunity without thinking it through, an opportunity that turns into a nightmare. He takes on the care of an elderly man who’s in the early stages of dementia. And if that’s not bad enough, soon the old man’s grandson and later his daughter show up. Have you ever seen a plate-spinner in the circus or on the old Ed Sullivan show? You know, the guy who spins twenty or more plates on the ends of twenty or more wands, racing back and forth to keep them all spinning. Win Win is like that as Mike struggles to keep his bad deed from destroying everything that matters to him.

Paul Giamatti, the Indie scene’s everyman, plays Mike as a combination of loyal family man, dedicated wrestling coach, and desperate schemer. What is that trick Giamatti does with his eyes? The rest of his face may exude charm and innocence while his eyes, without even moving, convey his anxiety about being caught in a lie.

And Amy Ryan, who tore up the screen in Gone Baby, Gone, is the most fully formed female character I’ve seen in many a movie. She loves her husband, but she’ll call him on his crap when she has to. Two of our best actors, Giamatti and Ryan know how to play several shades of feeling, even contradictory shades, at the same time. Poet John Keats called it “negative capability”–“being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It’s what we see in performances by DeNiro, Streep, Pacino, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling, Viola Davis, and only a handful of other actors.

Even young Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, does a stand-out job as the troubled teen who hides his pain behind a veil of insolence, indifference, and mystery.

And I can’t help mentioning one of my favorite actors, Margo Martindale, who plays Kyle’s mother’s lawyer. It’s a tiny part, but the measure of Martindale’s talent is how completely realized the character is. If you want to see what this talented actor can do with a larger canvas, watch this season’s episodes of Justified, where she plays Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a clan of redneck evildoers.

Bobby Cannavale, as Mike’s impulsive but well-intentioned friend, has the best role of his career and runs away with it. The ubiquitous Jeffrey Tambor gives the movie its deadpan anchor. We’ve seen him play over-the-top lunatics like Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. Here he plays Stephen Vigman just this side of the line between the real and the ridiculous. You laugh at him not because he’s ridiculous but because he’s so like us. Melanie Lynskey, who for years has added a touch of surreal humor to Two and a Half Men, plays Kyle’s drug-addicted mother. It’s a measure of her talent that she can make you dislike her and feel sorry for her at the same time.

The humor in Win Win arises out of character, out of the breakdown between how we picture the world and how it really is. The screenwriter strikes this note from the very beginning. Mike’s daughter asks her mother, “Where’s Daddy?” “He’s running,” she replies. “From what?” his daughter says. This brief exchange establishes Mike’s character, the movie’s theme, and the kind of humor that runs throughout. Win Win’s got more laughs per square inch than Arthur or any other so-called comedy of recent memory.

Win Win is about old-fashioned things like honor and sacrifice and second chances, about doing the right thing even after you’ve done the wrong thing. And somehow it touches on all this without being sententious and while making us laugh. At one point, when one of his spectacularly untalented wrestlers finishes his match without being pinned by his opponent, Mike points out that sometimes not losing is the biggest victory you can win. It’s a painful yet reassuring truth like this that makes this movie matter.

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Your Intergalactic Dudeness

Paul OnesheetHas anyone seen my sense of humor? It was here a minute ago. I must have lost it. What else would explain how I sat stone-faced through Paul. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a titter. I smiled once, when Blythe Danner delivers a line to Sigourney Weaver that Weaver first delivered in Aliens, one of several homages to science fiction movies. But that was it.

I don’t really think my sense of humor has gone missing. I think, once again, that Hollywood has failed to bring the funny. Paul just never gives you anything much to laugh at. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost specialize in movies that have great central ideas (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) but then fall apart in the execution. Here two vacationing sci-fi fanatics from England visit the locations of UFO sightings, when they run into an actual alien, a dope-smoking, obscenity-spouting pop culture addict. In other words, Seth Rogen. It’s a joke that lasts for about as long as the trailer, but at 104 minutes, the joke wears awfully thin awfully fast.

According to the story, Paul is the alien who crash-landed at Area 51 way back when. Since then, he’s been advising everyone from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood. Now his captors are finished with him and want to turn his brain into a tray full of heavy apps. Enter our heroes, who try to help him escape. Not funny, right? In fact, it sounds more like a standard science-fiction action thriller. Question: does the concept have to be funny in order for the movie to be funny? Maybe not. Mars Needs Moms is one of the funniest concepts/titles I’ve heard in a long time, but it isn’t enough, I guess, if the box office is any measure.

So funny must come from the execution, right? We’ve had threatening aliens (War of the Worlds, Alien). We’ve had lovable aliens (ET and, well, ET). We’ve even had straight-faced, no-nonsense aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, John Kerry). We’ve even had funny aliens (Men in Black), so why isn’t Paul funny? After all, he looks like a hydrocephalic lizard with the pallor of that leftover chicken leg in the back of the refrigerator. That’s funny, right? And he sounds like a cross between that roommate you never should have let in the door and Jeff Bridges in full Dude-mode. Isn’t that funny? Paul spends a lot of time trying to maintain his buzz, swearing, scratching his privates. He consumes coffee and bagels, cigarettes, pot, live birds, and Reese’s Pieces. But these details never rise above the mildly amusing. He does have at least one good rant. He hates it when Earthlings assume he’s going to anal probe them, and I’m with him on this. I’ve always wondered how it is that an alien life-form can supposedly travel clear across the universe and remain virtually undetected, but their most sophisticated method for examining human life is the anal probe. Really? I mean, really?

And doesn’t context count when it comes to funny? At one point, the house owned by Blythe Danner’s character is blown to bits, killing one of the inept and unknowing government agents chasing Paul. A person has died. but as our heroes drive away, Blythe Danner’s character looks back at the destruction and moans, “My weed!” Maybe the discovery that an older woman is a pothead could be mildly amusing . . . to a twelve-year-old. (Hint to the young: her generation invented weed!)

Maybe the funniest moment, given away in the trailer, happens when Paul revives a dead bird, only to eat it. When his new friends cringe and groan, he says, “What? I wasn’t going to eat a dead bird!” But we’ve seen it too many times to laugh. And anyway, very quickly the theme-machine gets trundled in. “Have you ever fixed a dead person?” Simon Pegg’s character asks. And the big-headed, thin-lipped green guy replies, “Oh no, it could bounce back on me. Very dangerous.” And of course, you know, by movie’s end, our friendly alien will be called on to face that challenge.

Why is Paul so unfunny? Maybe because aliens who are comfortable among us Earthlings, steeped in our culture and caught up in our vices, are only funny for a minute, whereas aliens for whom all of this is new are funny minute-by-minute Think Jeff Bridges in Starman. Think Jerry Lewis in Visit to a Small Planet.

Jason Bateman does a good Tommy Lee Jones impression, but is forced by the script to hide his comic talent and timing. Kristen Wiig has a few moments as a Bible-thumper who swears in imaginative ways, calling a couple of threatening good-old-boys “You vaginas!” But that joke wears thin, too. Stephen Spielberg has a nice cameo. And Jeffrey Tambor has a good turn as a self-important science-fiction novelist who can’t stand his fans. And Jane Lynch has a couple of brief shining moments with her patented brand of sardonic, slightly mean-spirited, slightly suggestive off-the-wallery. Does she bring her own writer to these gigs, or does she make this stuff up? Sadly, even the talents of Wiig, Tambor, and Lynch aren’t enough to revive this dead bird.