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A-Team

Win Win's heavyhearted comedy is near perfect, but the cast is flawless.

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As he proves in the terrific new comedy Win Win, no actor can lie more endearingly than Paul Giamatti. There’s always a tension between that magisterially plummy voice and that slumping body, and the schism is particularly striking when he plays a man with secrets: Mike Flaherty, a suburban New Jersey attorney with two daughters (one an infant) who can’t pay his bills and can’t bring himself to tell the truth to his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). But the whopper comes later, when he’s unable to pass up the sudden chance to take $1,508 a month from a near-senile client, Leo (Burt Young), under the pretense of acting as the old man’s guardian. The scheme goes haywire when Leo’s emotionally damaged grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up seeking shelter, on the run from his druggie mom and her abusive boyfriend. Tending to this kid, with his bleached hair and black eye and eerily flat demeanor, Flaherty is at once the generous father and the guilt-racked creep. Can he lie his way out of this mess? Do we want him to get caught, for his soul’s sake?

It’s not clear what the title refers to specifically, but the movie has “win win” all over it. The smarts of the writer-director, Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), are on view from the opening shot, the camera behind Giamatti on a jogging path as he staggers to a halt, stares ahead at nothing, and gets passed on either side by a pair of peppy runners. Flaherty is a heavy, haunted man, a heart attack waiting to happen. He compulsively buys cigarettes, lights one up, and tosses away the rest of the pack. Moonlighting as a high-school wrestling coach, he watches his scrawny, hapless team lose match after match—until, as luck (and the writer’s slickness) has it, Kyle turns out to be an accomplished high-school wrestler. Watching this kid flatten his opponents and take the team to the finals, we are well and truly Blind Sided.

Blessed is the go-for-it movie that can make room for dissonances and weirdness. The most hilarious/discomfiting touch is Kyle’s insistence on Flaherty’s giving him a hard slap across the face before he goes out for each match. It’s funny when sundry humanists—including Flaherty himself—register horror at the ritual, and even funnier when others on the team request a slapping, too. But the subtext is horrific. Kyle’s wrestling talents are fueled by abuse, and something in him could snap.

Win Win would be just about perfect if McCarthy didn’t use so many TV-style close-ups, if he kept his frames wider and held his shots longer: A little Altmanesque hubbub would be bracing. But if his eye isn’t fully developed, his ear is beautifully attuned. This is a symphony of marvelous voices: Giamatti’s most of all, and also Bobby Cannavale as his best friend, Terry, a hearty flake who attaches himself to the wrestling team to forget his failed marriage. Shaffer, a young wrestler in his acting debut, uses his lack of film experience to suggest a lack of life experience, uncomfortably contained until he opens up in the gymnasium, the master of his tiny realm. When Kyle’s mother finally shows up, she’s played by the New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey, best known for playing opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures: She has a breathy, seductive little voice with a touch of Marilyn Monroe and an eye on the main chance. You see why Kyle leaps out windows to avoid her.

Amy Ryan has the least showy role and ends up giving the movie its moral center. At first, for fear of her daughters’ safety, she nuttily tries to lock the door to the basement where Kyle is crashing—only to be brought back from the brink by her husband’s soothing tones. When she learns of Kyle’s terrible life, she announces he’s not going home and that she’s “going to go to Ohio and beat the crap out of his mom.” It not facetious—she really wants to go. Ryan’s voice has an edge that cuts through Giamatti’s fatty resonance and tugs him out of the realm of self-pity. Who wouldn’t want parents so perfectly matched? I guess that’s the win-win.

Oh, no, you might say, not another Jane Eyre! The damn thing pops up every decade as either a movie or an endless Brit mini-series and, as the fount of so much Gothic dreck (including, in some ways, the Twilight saga), it seems pretty well tapped out. But this one has Mia ­Wasikowska, hands down my favorite plain Jane. And she is amazingly plain. Her mousy brown hair is pulled tightly back, and she’s dressed to conceal her figure. You have to look twice—and listen—to see her beauty through the eyes of Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who knows at once that he has found the woman who will liberate him from “the mire” of his thoughts. Wasikowska’s Jane is as watchful as only a damaged soul can be, and, when challenged, frighteningly fast. Fassbender plays Rochester as a wolf caught in a trap and dangerously unpredictable; Dame Judi Dench, her vowels plebianized, is the chattery housekeeper. Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a stripped-down but elegant script by Moira Buffini, this Jane Eyre is a little drab and not much helped by the occasional subjective, hand-held camerawork—which plays like a visit from the Blair Witch. But it’s worth seeing for ­Wasikowska, an actress so young yet so formed.

Eric Mendelsohn’s 3 Backyards is a lyric portrait of three people in a wealthy suburb, a place at once lovely, mysterious, and profoundly, corrosively isolating. The movie has none of the smugness of ­American Beauty: You could dream of living in a world like this. (It’s on Long ­Island’s North Shore.) Mendelsohn cuts among Elias Koteas as a businessman on the verge of splitting from his wife, Edie Falco as an amateur painter who is over the moon at the prospect of driving a glamorous celebrity (Embeth Davidtz) to the ­ferry, and Rachel Resheff as a little girl who misses her school bus and makes her way through a forest with hidden horrors. As the narrative baton passes from character to character, the camera takes on a life of its own, moving in on insects and sunlight-dappled leaves, the images under­scored by Michael Nicholas’s mystical strings, woodwinds, and glassy timpani. Koteas, having missed his plane, creeps back to his house and gazes through the windows at his family. The actor has an unruly, beseeching spirit barely contained by his suit and tie. Falco, in scenes of escalating unpleasantness, attempts to draw out the celebrity, who is stricken by some unnamed woe. Never has the longing to be validated by the famous seemed so fierce and unnatural, even tragic. It should be said that with technique so flamboyant, Mendelsohn risks seeming ridiculous, but I think he gets it at least 80 percent of the time. At its best, the movie is exquisite.

Win Win
Fox Searchlight Pictures. R.

Jane Eyre
Focus Films. PG-13.

3 Backyards
Screen Media Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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