WIN WIN written and directed by Tom McCarthy, with Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer. A Fox Searchlight release. 105 minutes. Opens Friday (March 25). See listing.
Tom McCarthy has a moral dilemma he'd like to discuss.
His new film, Win Win, stars indie icon Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a struggling New Jersey lawyer and part-time wrestling coach who has himself appointed the legal guardian of elderly Leo (Burt Young) for some quick cash to keep his practice afloat - and ends up taking in his charge's moody teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer). Mike doesn't care about Leo or his family - all he wanted was the stipend - but the kid turns out to be a gifted wrestler, turning Mike's team from losers to winners.
So here's the thing: Mike's ethical indiscretion puts his team and family in a better place. But he's still a bad person for taking that step, isn't he?
"It's a real credit to Paul's performance [that we find the character sympathetic]," McCarthy says, easing into a couch on the film's Toronto press stop. "There's [some] duplicity in terms of the audience's involvement, who they're rooting for, because you root for him but at the same time you realize he's gonna get his. And that's gotta come, too. So it's fun to watch the audience struggle with that a little bit and say, ‘Well, he's a good guy, but....'"
McCarthy knows a thing or two about duplicity, having played a Baltimore Sun reporter with a penchant for fabrication in the final season of The Wire. (When he's not writing and directing finely honed indie dramas like The Station Agent and The Visitor, McCarthy's a working actor; you may remember him as John Cusack's romantic rival in 2012.)
The idea of good things resulting from morally questionable deeds is something McCarthy's been kicking around for nearly a decade.
"Andrew Fastow, the CFO at Enron, grew up 10 minutes from me," he says. "I played soccer with his brother. Great family, the Fastows, terrific people. A lot of great things came out of the productivity and profit of that company - philanthropy, all these wonderful things. But all the good that came out of it, it's not built on [anything] real. And when the cards came down, we had to pay for that. I thought that was a really interesting theme for this movie."
Win Win isn't exclusively about a moral quandary, though. It's also got a heart, embodied by Giamatti's beleaguered coach taking Shaffer's unsteady kid under his wing. Casting newcomer Shaffer, who'd never acted before, meant McCarthy got to watch that relationship play out both on- and off-camera.
"He's an incredibly generous actor," the director says of Giamatti. "He's one of those guys who just picks up an energy and plugs in. And because Paul is such an unfussy actor - he's focused, he does his thing, has fun - it was really helpful to Alex, because there wasn't all this process. Everyone has his own approach to the work, but he kept it light. It was a huge help."