Win Win (Blu-ray) | DVD Review
“It is the kind of film, in other words, which wears its weirdness not just proudly, but as its very reason for being—I’m strange, therefore I am. The point here is not the basic ingredients of plot or character, because the characters are all either stereotypes or ideograms of a sort and the plot gossamer-thin, but the variations on plotlessness and characterlessness.”
Whether the point of auteurship is to achieve something like esthetic commodification, à la Antonioni (ironically or not), or to resist, interrupt and otherwise fend off that coup at all costs and at every turn, à la Bergman (intentionally or not), is a question probably better left to others. And yet as far as that question concerns the work of Tom McCarthy, it is surely a subject worth taking up, because Win Win is just the latest iteration of a film which has been made and remade a lot of late in the United States and Europe, namely, the ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ (serio-)comedy. It is the kind of film, in other words, which wears its weirdness not just proudly, but as its very reason for being—I’m strange, therefore I am. The point here is not the basic ingredients of plot or character, because the characters are all either stereotypes or ideograms of a sort and the plot gossamer-thin, but the variations on plotlessness and characterlessness. And negative though those words may sound at first blush, as all adjectives that deprive their objects of qualities tend to do, Win Win’s biggest triumph may be the ways in which it leverages all of the cultural baggage that comes along with the ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ (serio-)comedy to its advantage. If anything, it’s certainly a charmer—and not despite the slightness of its reach, either, but precisely for it.
But back to the question of auteurship. In a time when the word ‘auteur’ is bandied around with almost the same level of meaning-sapping ease as ‘existential’ and co., when Douglas Sirk is experiencing an inexplicable critical renascence, when films are described as ‘aching’ and ‘searing’ (as compliments too!), and when Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze are unironically namedropped in some circles as some of the better directors working in the United States, what, if anything, does the term actually refer to anymore? Tom McCarthy’s career has been a study in the development of an esthetic that almost begs and pleads not to be called an esthetic—because it is predictable, formulaic and shamelessly winsome, qualifiers one shudders to attribute to a ‘real’ auteur. From the well-received The Visitor onwards, this esthetic has been on display: from the opening few minutes the audience already has a clear sense of where this is going to go, how it’s all going to end, etc. The magic then, if there is any to be had, will be found in the execution and not in the concept itself.
The characters might as well have been cardboard cutouts from a display trying to sell you something you know deep down you don’t really need, but buy nevertheless—there’s the hard-working but slightly out of touch father trying to provide for his family, there’s the too-good-for-him mother and wife that would probably beat him in a fight, too, there’s the precocious, kids-say-the-darnedest-things daughter. Which is to say, even without seeing this movie, we’ve probably already seen it. And then in comes the deux ex machina, or the closest thing the film will ever have to it, anyway, as if hoisted in on a crane—the troubled teenager with a random physical eccentricity who touches the depths of their souls and changes them all for the better by showcasing his extraordinary but suppressed talent at [insert thing here]. Oh, and then there’s a supporting cast of ‘funny people,’ including the clueless co-coach and the recently divorced wealthy guy who spies on his wife and distracts himself from the pathetic emptiness of his life by helping the troubled teenager showcase his extraordinary talent at [insert thing here]. The talent is for wrestling, for the record, and the physical eccentricity is the bleach-blond mop of hair. And literally the only source of tension in the movie is a lie of omission on the part of Paul Giamatti, playing the role of the father as admirably as it could be, which comes back to haunt him in the obligatory round of final revelations. Even the title is formulaic. Which is a funny thing, because you kind of end up buying it.
Whether this is on the basis of charm alone is entirely beside the point. And whether you’re guilt-ridden after the fact—also beside the point. Why? Because at just under two hours, with just the right amount of dry humor, quirky recurring jokes (in describing a wrestling move done by the troubled teenager, one of the coaches yells to the other, less talented wrestlers: “The move is . . . whatever the fuck it takes!), and accesses of pathos here and there, with a loose-knot-tying, utopian finale worthy of a Lifetime special (sprinkled with just the right amount of disappointment, too), Win Win hits every note it needs to and even does it with a certain graceful air. Is it ‘searing,’ whatever that means? Probably not. Is it ‘aching’? No, not in any sense of the word, imagined or not. Is Tom McCarthy an ‘auteur’? Is Win Win a Trojan-horse Persona of the suburbs? But why bother with that? As it is, Win Win is a solid ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ (serio-) comedy that rarely disappoints in a world cluttered up with Big Mommas and popstar chipmunks. So maybe it’s not a win win, but isn’t just the one enough?
Deleted Scenes: Mike Meets with Mrs. Tedesco
Deleted Scenes: Family and Leo Drive to Courthouse
Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni discuss WIN WIN
None of these especially stands out, but the exchange at Sundance between lead and director is the most interesting of the three.
David Thompson at Sundance 2011
In Conversation with Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti at Sundance 2011
“Think You Can Wait” Music Video by The National
Beyond these extras, there are also two others: a featurette called Family and the music video for a song written for the film, “Think You Can Wait,” by Brooklyn indie royalty The National (which makes it really hard for the film to shake the label of ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ [serio-]comedy). The featurette comes off as just as sappy as the title would suggest, and feels utterly inessential. But then that’s why it’s called an extra.
Don’t believe your local newspaper. It actually won’t change your life. What it is is a very proficient piece of work within the limits of its niche and genre that will probably appeal to its niche audience, but which does have some crossover appeal in the end. It is the kind of film, in other words, which wears its weirdness not just proudly, but as its very reason for being—I’m strange, therefore I am.