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Good people sometimes make bad decisions, director Tom McCarthy tells Andrew L. Urban early one Sydney morning.

As adults, says Win Win writer/director Tom McCarthy, “we get away with a lot; there’s no-one looking over our shoulder. So there are decent people sometimes making bad decisions.” Or even just one, as does Mike Flaherty, the character in Win Win played by Oscar nominated Paul Giamatti, a struggling lawyer in New Jersey. 

It’s 7am in Sydney when we connect by phone; McCarthy is based in New York, where it is 6pm the previous day. “Sorry the call is so early,” he says. “Good morning!”

Flaherty, vaguely modelled on McCarthy’s long time lawyer friend and co-writer Joe Toboni, has an opportunity to make a little extra (much needed) money as the official carer for one of his clients, and he rationalises his decision how to carry out his duties without impacting on his own life too much. “He knows deep down that he isn’t doing the right thing, which is why he doesn’t tell his wife – until he has to,” says McCarthy. 

"the film’s moral dilemma is delivered so subtly and so calmly we nearly do forget."

“He hopes things will just work out and he gets away with it, and I wanted to ask the audience if they will just forget about it and let it go.” It’s a relatively small, but nonetheless bad decision, and Flaherty doesn’t make a habit of it, so the film’s moral dilemma is delivered so subtly and so calmly we nearly do forget.

“I didn’t want to hit people over the head with it; it’s just a part of the many things go on in Flaherty’s world. I want audiences to get caught up in the story,” adds McCarthy, originally an actor whose first two films as director, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007), similarly nuanced and warmly humane, yet astringent.

McCarthy found it “more challenging than expected” to write a screenplay set in New Jersey, the neighbourhood where he himself grew up. “There are no biographical references as such, but there’s a bit more of me in this than my previous films in that it was set where I grew up. So it was tricky to make it compelling but not overstated or sensationalised.

There is one thing, though, that is also ‘a bit more’ of him: Flaherty is a volunteer high school wrestling coach, a sport McCarthy enjoyed as a student. It’s an unusual sport to feature in a film, and helps add to the complexities of the film, in the form of young Kyle (Alex Shaffer), his client’s grandson. Kyle has been so absent that his grandfather has never met him. Kyle has been living in Ohio with his single mother and her unpleasant boyfriend, whose absence in a drug rehab clinic is the reason for Kyle’s arrival in New Jersey.

He is allowed to stay at the Flaherty family home, and when he proves to be an excellent wrestler, not only joins Flaherty’s underperforming team, but offers them hope for a win – at long last. 

"The dynamics of the relationships"

The dynamics of the relationships play out against this backdrop and Flaherty eventually has to face up to his bad decision. Paul Giamatti excels as Flaherty. 

“I have always wanted to work with Paul,” says McCarthy, “but the role has to meet the actor. If you try to jam a role into an actor for some reason – like for their star name – it doesn’t work. I didn’t write it specially for him but it really fits him. It’s in his wheelhouse. Besides,” he adds, “I rarely cast the predictable actor.”

McCarthy says he could have cast a more classically good looking actor, “but Paul has such a great voice and such integrity…When I first saw him all ready to work on set, I immediately believed him.”

Filmmakers’ notes (extract):
Having once sported a wrestling singlet himself in his New Jersey youth, McCarthy was inspired by the vision of a last-place high-school wrestling team in a town where nearly everyone is hoping for a lucky break – and suddenly, they get one. That was the initial spark for Win Win. 

“The idea really spoke to me and the challenge, I thought, would be to bring to life what, on the surface, looks like a very conventional world – suburban America and high school sports – but do it in a way that would be authentic, funny and alive,” McCarthy says. 

Kyle might be the catalyst for much of the film’s humour, but his situation is also heartrending. “Kyle is a kid in a tough spot,” notes McCarthy. “He’s a runaway, his mom is in rehab and he’s come to find his grandfather who he’s never actually met. But the one thing this kid lives for is to wrestle, and when he’s offered the chance to wrestle for Mike’s team, he just can’t pass it up. And that’s when the fun starts, because Mike realizes he’s got a true ringer.” 

McCarthy and Tiboni surrounded Mike and Kyle with a vibrant cast of characters from the community who each have their own need to rebound from rough times. They include Jackie, Mike’s wife who unexpectedly becomes Kyle’s confidante; Terry, Mike’s recently divorced friend, who can’t get his mind off his wife’s affairs, literally; Vigman, Mike’s fellow coach and stressed-out CPA who can’t afford his stepson’s Lasik (eye surgery); and Stemler, the skinny, petrified nerd whose presence on the wrestling team is a mystery even to himself.

"I love to find moments of quiet humanity"

That type of funny/moving duality is a big part of McCarthy’s comedic style, which, no matter the subject, always focuses on the real experiences of everyday people. “I love to find moments of quiet humanity,” he says, “where you get the feeling that the people on screen are people you know, flaws and all. If you can do that, I think the audience will go on any ride, and this is quite a ride.” 

Published August 18, 2011

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Win Win

– in cinemas August 18, 2011


Tom McCarthy

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