The People's Champ
With his new sports-tinged dramedy Win Win, Jersey-born writer-director Tom McCarthy continues to exhibit his trademark instincts for reading people and telling human stories, bruises and all.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
IN HIS OWN WAY, actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy is America’s answer to Mike Leigh. Though more structured, safe and genteel than Britain’s kitchen-sink master, McCarthy possesses Leigh’s same extraordinary empathy for his characters, and for humankind in general. With great intuition and compassion, the writer/director consistently lays down predominantly neutral turf, upon which his players unfurl their isms, inadequacies, flaws, virtues and hard-won joys. He loves his characters and delights in all their blemishes and bright spots, and in turn, his adoration is felt and shared by the audience. Such is but one of the reasons why the title of McCarthy’s new film, Win Win, is so perfectly apt. The movie concerns the victory-conscious worlds of sports and law, and deals in both opportunism and symbiotic relationships, but its title chiefly reminds us of what’s been true of all of McCarthy’s work: when there’s this much care and understanding put into the story and the people within it, nobody loses.
As he did with his first two features, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), McCarthy populates Win Win with inherently decent people who are prone to losing their ways, but have unexpectedly strong capacities for kindness. In their ups and downs, no one ever goes so far as to step out of character, nor does anyone’s actions or feelings ever bleed into sentimentality. McCarthy is far too gifted a screenwriter for any of that. The way he shapes his people is presumably the way he regards all people: optimistically, yet realistically; knowingly, yet curiously.
|Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale in The Station Agent|
“I like to travel a lot,” McCarthy says during a recent Philadelphia press tour for Win Win. “I started doing it at a very early age. I love meeting different people and I love taking things away from those meetings. I just remember so many things. There’s something about that experience of bumping into people randomly, in other cultures or communities, that I’ve always found fascinating.”
McCarthy may have modeled Peter Dinklage’s Fin McBride (The Station Agent) after a little person he encountered at a train platform, or based Richard Jenkins’s Walter Vale (The Visitor) on a professor he had in college, but he didn’t need to venture far to gather inspiration for his newest characters. Set in the all-too-familiar suburbs of New Jersey (McCarthy grew up in New Providence), Win Win stars Paul Giamatti
as Mike Flaherty, a husband, father and small business owner whom McCarthy’s no doubt met 100 times. A small-time attorney whose practice is struggling, Mike is having anxiety attacks. He coaches high school wrestling on the side, which allows him to vent his anger and feed a passion of his youth. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is a wonderfully maternal, Bon Jovi-loving Jersey girl, but also a judgmental conclusion-jumper. His best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), is loyal and successful, but brazenly off-color when it comes to his ex-wife. And Mike himself just wants to do right by his family, but takes advantage of an elderly client as the clouds roll in on his good judgment.
|Alex Schaffer and Paul Giamatti in Win Win|
“Being from a suburb, you get to a certain age and you look back and you’re like, ‘they weren’t all perfect people,’” McCarthy says of the flawed folks who’ve inevitably informed his writing, “but I’m also at an age where I can look back and see the beauty in it all.” He throws in an irresistible anecdote about how he’s on New Providence High School’s Wall of Fame alongside Enron CFO Andrew Fastow, a guy he grew up
with. “The joke is that the plaque reads, ‘Andrew has been written about in The Wall Street Journal,’” he says, unable to avoid a laugh. “But seriously, I know that family—it’s a very good family. They’re really nice people, good parents—I used to go to their house to hang out. There were just some bad choices made. I can’t think back and say ‘Oh, that’s right, [Andrew] was an asshole,’ because I don’t feel that way about him. He’s just a pretty decent guy who got off base and made some bad decisions.”
Unless he’s just putting his game face on for a room full of journalists, McCarthy, 44, is surprisingly guy’s-guy-ish for someone so adept at crafting such sensitive tales of frailty and morality. Clad in jeans and a sport coat, he’s loose and casual. He gets amped up about the athletic content of his film, and he lets a whole lot of curses slip. But he’s also expectedly contemplative when discussing his process, which he says, isn’t “over-intellectualized,” but is certainly very involved, impassioned and consuming. He says his story development remains rather fluid right on through the editing and post-production discussion stages, but it begins with jotting things down in a notebook, which he carries with him everywhere he goes. For Win Win, he frequented high school wrestling matches with his co-writer and longtime friend, Joe Tiboni, scribbling
details and inspirations onto paper.
|McCarthy on the set of Win Win|
That kind of preparation aided in the molding of characters like Kyle, the film’s star attraction and star wrestler played by first-timer Alex Shaffer, a Hunterdon County, New Jersey teen and bona fide, nationally ranked wrestling champion. In the movie, Kyle first crosses paths with Mike in a very Tom-McCarthyan, fortuitous-yet-uncontrived sort of way, sitting in front of the home that belongs to his grandfather, the same elderly gentleman Mike is manipulating. Kyle joins Mike’s wrestling team, is welcomed into the arms of Mike’s family (he’s estranged from his addict mother, played by Melanie Lynskey) and, of course, complicates the story’s frayed moral fabric.
McCarthy chose wrestling as a plot element not just for its rarity at the movies, not just for its allegorical support of Mike’s own personal struggle, but because he, too, wrestled in high school. He wasn’t a phenom like Kyle or Alex Shaffer, but he had an affinity for the sport, and still does. It’s one more reason Win Win is his most personal effort yet.
“I didn’t realize it was my most personal film until I finished it,” he says, “I’ve written about a place where I grew up and about people I know inside and out. I felt so close to some of these people and felt like I understood them in a way that was so immediate to me. I even developed it with a lifelong friend—that process alone was very personal.”
And, yet, the movie is also McCarthy’s most accessible, an attribute that doesn’t often mesh well with personal in regard to film. The comedy is broader, the structure more traditional, the appeal more mainstream. It’s the kind of sports movie people love, where the sport in question is lowest on the list of what it’s about. So, what makes Win Win still true to McCarthy’s oeuvre and worthy of the arthouse? McCarthy has a marvelous knack for repurposing tropes to serve his unique perspective. He’s aware of the reactions he’ll elicit, and he knows how to please a crowd, but rarely does he ever sacrifice grace, tact, wit or cleverness. He’s a pro at gifting his characters with endearing idiosyncracies, not trendy, flash-in-the-pan quirks. He achieves a uniform naturalism, but laces it with heightened irony, and finds great running gags in such things as an impressionable young girl dying to know the meanings of adult words. His humor is handled as gently as his post-recession commentary. Even in the way he forms his script, he breaks rules while following them. He places multiple guns on the mantle (a tree ready to topple, a boiler ready to blow), but never do you see them go off.
|McCarthy and Paul Giamatti|
Much of McCarthy’s considerable skill comes back to his understanding of, and interest in, people. He’s a filmmaker with an uncommon aptitude for interpreting, respecting, processing and conveying the human condition. Perhaps his work as an actor, getting inside the skin of his characters, has played a large part in this. He’s appeared in more than 30 films and TV shows, including Good Night, and Good Luck, Flags of Our Fathers, Duplicity and The Wire. Or perhaps it’s all that note taking, all that observation and people-watching, that’s made him so perceptive. He offers some more anecdotes about his trip to Philadelphia, and about the things he saw that wound up in his notebook.
Of his visit to the restaurant Fork, he says, "I walk in and all I can focus on is this guy—silver hair, straight back, amazing bright pinstripe suit, great shirt, eating by himself, probably 65 to 70. I’m like, ‘Okay, who’s that?’ I wanted to get a cup of coffee and just sit and watch him. He was such a great character. A lot of times, that’s where it starts for me.”
He continues, “Driving over here, we stopped in the car and I looked over and there’s this statue of a guy on one of your buildings [the John Wanamaker Statue]. I’m thinking, ‘Who is that? What if you were his widow and you pulled up and saw that? What would it mean to you? Would you flash back? Would you just keep going?’ Then it becomes, ‘I’m gonna write that down. I’m gonna write something cool about that.’”