Through a Lens Darkly
Embracing Martha While Pining for Mary: Win-Win?
Life in a household of six boys often feels relentlessly jumbled and overwhelming. The wall of sound that greets me on my return home each day; the coughing, congestion and continual runny noses; the endless cycle of feeding, cleaning, and caring for this beloved brood of mine—my wife and I find ourselves willing-yet-worn-thin on the Sisyphean waterwheel of our sons' lives.
In this context, I recently had the chance to watch Tom McCarthy's largely overlooked Win Win for the first time, and was bolstered by its gentle encouragements. Like McCarthy's previous two works (The Visitor and The Station Agent), this film is deceptively subdued, concealing its considerable insights behind the mundane activities of ordinary, unexciting protagonists. This time, McCarthy and his co-writer, long-time friend Joe Tioboni, dipped into their own pasts to tell the story of Mike Flaherty, a small-town lawyer struggling to balance his failing law practice against the needs of his burgeoning family, and his responsibilities toward the inept high school wrestling team he coaches in his "spare time."
Testing the viability of his "elder law" practice, our middling lawyer fastens upon a wealthy, dementia-ravaged senior as a means of ensuring the financial future of his family. Convincing a judge that he supports the fading Mr. Leo's desire to live out his waning days in the comfort of his own home, Mike instead banishes the old man to the town's senior care facility and pockets the sizable funds designated for his monthly care.
The unexpected arrival of his client's troubled grandson, Kyle—a gifted high-school wrestler with a history of emotional problems—muddies the waters considerably. Moved by the boy's efforts to escape from a troubled past (and well aware of the gigantic boost he provides to the wrestling team), Mike welcomes Kyle into his house, and he quickly becomes an integral part of the Flaherty family. But when Kyle's deadbeat mom attempts to reclaim her father's wealth, Mike finds himself playing an increasingly dangerous game of deception.
The film is noteworthy for the wonderful performances of Paul Giamatti as Mike and Alex Shaffer as Kyle, and for the extraordinary subtlety and honesty of its writing. McCarthy's knack for capturing instantly knowable characters is evident in all three of his films, and I'm amazed anew every time I see it.
But Win Win is perhaps most memorable for its portrayal of a character we rarely see and even more rarely appreciate—a man overwhelmed by the day-to-day details of a life he wouldn't trade for anything; a man struggling to do the right thing, terrified by the prospect of failing his family, yet battling against the temptation of the "easy way out;" one who falls repeatedly, but is man enough to recognize when he has failed. A film overflowing with worthwhile "take-away messages," it is above all a refreshing reminder that an ordinary man struggling to live his life as well and faithfully as he is able will have a profound impact on those closest to him.
Mike's worth is not measured by his barristerial success or by the accomplishments of his wrestling team. It is measured far more meaningfully and subtly—by the quiet influence he wields over his family, his friends, and over the young, desperate boy who stumbles across his path. It is his willingness to pour himself out for them each and every day that most clearly manifests his worth; a willingness rarely recognized and always underappreciated, yet one that will prove more perfective of him than anything else he could attempt.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.