From the popular success of The King’s Speech, it seems that everyone wants to see a feel-good movie in these days of wrath and doom. It’s not that we members of the Borderstan community are threatened with government shutdowns, although we are. It’s more that the threat of shutdown arises from a radical distrust of how institutions work.
That distrust arises from our current experience of failure everywhere — in the environment, in culture, and especially in the relationships among generations. The old have money enough to begin to die on. The young are largely mute about the anxieties they suffer either from over-protective parents or from parents who don’t care at all. And those in the middle, that bridge generation between the two, worry about their responsibilities on either side.
That’s why Win Win (the American movie, not the Dutch Win/Win on view this weekend at the DC Filmfest) attracts a large and happy-to-be-there audience. It is about an ordinary man beset with the problems of supporting a family in contemporary America. He is essentially a good man, trying to run a small law practice, pay the health insurance, and do as well as he can for his clients — who seem mainly to be the elderly who have been left behind. He also coaches high school wrestling on the side.
The plot turns on the decision of the lawyer, Mike Flaherty played by Paul Giamatti, to take charge of an old man who seems to have lost his mind through Alzheimer’s. The beset lawyer should not have done that, especially because it entails receiving $1,500 a month from the old man’s estate and because Flaherty violates a court agreement by putting the man in a nice old people’s home rather than letting him stay in his own house.
But the lawyer needs the extra money to pay his bills at a time when times are slow everywhere. He is desperate.
Meanwhile, complications ensue: the old guy has a grandson who has fled to him from his druggy mother and her various boyfriends. He enters the lawyer’s family instead, and joins Flaherty’s failing wrestling team as well. Then the boy’s mother — who hasn’t visited her father for years — arrives and wants to take the boy and her confused father away. She wants to get at her father’s money for herself.
The details of this film are not so important as the fact that it has a relatively happy ending, and that there are lots of really good laughs along the way. It is true that there is moral failure on the part of the “hero” lawyer, but there are many successes around him — a feisty but loyal wife, a crazy but loyal friend, the taciturn semi-adopted grandson who receives loving care despite his inability to express himself, and kids on the wrestling team who need the lawyer’s expertise and encouragement to win at least one game in their season.
It is a sign of Win Win’s rejection of the possibility of some more muscular intervention to save everything that the boys on the high school wrestling team are pitifully slender and pale and lacking in the physiques of superheroes.
I tend to forget the explosions, shoot-outs, and last-minute rescues of other films that seem designed to reassure the audience that heroics can resolve the every-day problems of our depressed era. I am more encouraged by the limited victories of small films like Win Win and those others of its director/writer, Thomas McCarthy — The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007) and even the animated Up (2009), which he helped write. But there are other small films that also assure the viewer that all is not lost.
I think of a few from the last decade like You Can Count on Me (2000), Off the Map (2003), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Juno (2007). Such films search out the charms and the quirkiness of ordinary people — the old, the young, and the middle-aged — and then show these people responding to crises in quietly heroic ways. They would be worth watching in case of another shutdown crisis.
And there’s always It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), if you really need a lift.