Director Thomas McCarthy, whose new film Win-Win is currently playing at Uptown Theater, isn’t from Minnesota, but spent some of his formative collegiate time here in the Twin Cities.
So it’s hardly surprising that his movies carry a tinge of that unique Minnesota flavor, albeit the flavor that tantalizes the tongues of those who use ketchup as a base for salsa.
McCarthy’s movies are, well, just nice. Very nice, very tasteful, very middlebrow. Well-done middlebrow, to be sure. His movies are exactly the sort of movies that people who generally never see movies go out of their way to tell all their friends who also generally never see movies to go out of their way to see.
He stresses character and novelistic shifts in plot over overt cinematic stylings, and his characters’ actions are always very measured, naturalistic and mundane. His camera never serves to do anything other than offer a window into which audiences can essentially peer into the lives of people who may as well be their neighbors. There’s never a tasteless nor misguided tangent.
He’s basically the anti-Coen Brothers.
Lest it sound too much like I’m describing with the back of my hand (and, I’ll admit, McCarthy’s approach doesn’t exactly jibe much with what I typically dig about movies), I hasten to add that instead of comparing him against the likes of the Coens, one could also align him with one of my favorite Minnesota authors: the gentle but still frequently sardonic Jon Hassler. And it’s pretty clear there are few directors working in America right now who can turn budgets of roughly $10 million into crowd-pleasing gold.
Win-Win is probably the best showcase for his soft-spoken gifts yet, or at least the one least marred by the similarly Minnesotan penchant for passive-aggressive sermonizing (an impulse that all but torpedoed The Visitor).
It stars Paul Giamatti in full sad-sack bloom as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer in a small town that clearly keeps on its best behavior and doesn’t need his counsel. He’s, like the rest of the country, just barely riding out the recession.
One of his only clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), is senile and likely needs to be put into a home. He argues to a judge that he can serve as the Leo’s guardian, but as it turns out, he puts him into a home anyway, allowing him to collect the $1,000-per-month per diem without having to actually take care of the man.
It’s a scheme, to be sure, but a “win-win,” since Leo is getting presumably great care out of the deal. And it would like go off without a hitch if Leo’s runaway grandson didn’t show up on Leo’s doorstep.
In an effort to cover up his tracks, Mike invites the teen boy into his home. The family immediately falls in love with him and aches for his apparently very sad backstory. And he also happens to be a crack wrestler, which works to high school wrestling coach Mike’s advantage.
McCarthy’s movie is careful to never stretch credibility, and to his credit, his impeccable casting decisions do all the heavy lifting, which is all too appropriate, given McCarthy’s other career as a character actor.
In short, you can buy someone like Giamatti trying to pull off a scheme like this because, in the end, you can buy his blundering attempts to keep the trail clean.
Of course, another reason it’s easy to buy is because Win-Win ain’t selling much else. But, hey, in the midst of a recession, who can afford much more?