@ The Neon
April 21, 2011
I’ll always think it’s a better idea when making a sports movie to try to convert an athlete into an actor rather than the other way around; especially when the athlete portrayed on screen is supposed to be elite. So, I was pleased that director Tom McCarthy chose former New Jersey state wrestling champion Alex Shaffer to play Kyle in Win Win. Shaffer’s athletic ability is needed to play the role of wrestling phenom Kyle because no audience is going to accept Frankie Muniz or some similarly sized actor as a dominant 119 pound wrestler. Shaffer was the right choice because he actually is a phenom and it’s believable that his abilities are capable of delivering a sudden jolt of relevance, perspective and excitement to the lives of three grown men, as Kyle is able to do for his new wrestling coach Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti and his two assistants, played by Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor.
Flaherty is a relatively unsuccessful, too nice for his own good lawyer and volunteer high school wrestling coach who early on makes an uncharacteristic and morally questionable decision you know he’ll end up paying for. Flaherty assumes legal guardianship of an elderly, confused client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) who happens to have a 16-year-old grandson named Kyle in need of a place in the world thanks to a train wreck of a mother. Flaherty and Kyle’s paths soon cross and, as a wrestling coach, it’s not long before Flaherty, Terry (Cannavale) and Coach Vig (Tambor) realize they have stumbled upon a talent the likes of which they’ve never seen. Coach Vig sums up the excited yet intimidated feelings of all three coaches by exclaiming during Kyle’s first practice, “I don’t think we can teach him anything.”
The story progresses in fairly predictable, sports movie fashion: losing, discovery of talent, trust building, winning, loss of trust, losing, moral victory. Which is not to say that the story doesn’t work, it just doesn’t really matter. There are touching moments, the performances are good and the characters are easy to root for, but Win Win is good because it’s funny. The funniest moments coming as a result of Kyle’s talent and laid back persona garnering the rather unhealthy affection of his coaches. Terry verbalizes the feelings of the other coaches and wrestlers when first seeing Kyle’s back full of tattoos during a weigh-in by saying, in all seriousness, “This kid’s so #&@!ing cool.”
Although the cast is strong and all of the known actors, including Amy Ryan (The Office, The Wire) as Flaherty’s strong, smarter than everyone else wife, deliver as you’d expect them to, Win Win does not work AT ALL without newcomer Alex Shaffer. Aside from his athletic talent which got him the part, he has no trouble conveying the emotions and attitude of a soft spoken teenage boy without a home. He also has no trouble assuming a dominant position when on screen with his older and infinitely more experienced counterparts. You’ve seen stories like this before, but Shaffer’s frequent interactions with his eager mentors provoke easy laughter, which is all I ask out of a comedy.