PARK CITY - Fox Searchlight has become a staple at the Sundance Film Festival over the past decade and not just because they have acquired films such as "Napoleon Dynamite," "Once," "Little Miss Sunchine," "Garden State" and "Waitress." The company has also debuted their own features for the Park City faithful, sometimes up to a half a year before their release. The studio took chances on "The Savages," "500 Days of Summer" and "Cyrus" and were rewarded in spades with fantastic reviews across the board. This year, Searchlight has brought two of their more commercially viable films, the Ed Helms comedy "Cedar Rapids" and Thomas McCarthy's "Win Win" which debuted tonight.
Set in the vast suburbia of New Jersey, "Win Win" begins as Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) realizes he's in dire financial straights with his friendly neighborhood law practice. Hiding the problem from his feisty wife Jackie (a great Amy Ryan), Mike offers to make himself the guardian for a client with severe dementia, Leo (Burt Young), after neither the state or his office can track down Leo's next of kin. It turns out Leo is loaded and becoming his guardian will give Mike an extra $1500 a month. Everything seems to be kosher until Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up from Ohio.
At this point, "Win Win" has been mostly a dramedy. Leo's condition hasn't been played pretty straight and the only real comic figure is Mike's best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale). Kyle can't stay with his grandfather (who's been moved to senior citizen's home) and his mother (Leo's daughter) appears to have five more weeks of rehab to go and won't even speak to Mike, his wife or her son on the phone. Begrudgingly, Mike and Jackie take the easy going Kyle in. It's when Mike discovers that Kyle was a champion high school wrestler that the movie really takes off. Oh, did we forget to mention Mike is the local high school wrestling coach and that his team is in need of a major talent infusion? In something akin to "The Blind Side" meets "The Bad News Bears," Kyle quickly becomes a phenomenon and settles into the team and living with Mike's family. The wrestling scenes, which also feature Jeffrey Tambor as Mike's assistant coach, are hands down the funniest and most inspired part of the movie. Predictably, Kyle's mom (Melanie Lynskey) shows up to try and finagle her father's inheritance and bring Kyle home. That's when the film switches back to its earlier dramatic leanings.
Granted, as described it's an uneven mix, but Giamatti and Ryan have enough comic chops and gravitas to make it entertaining even when you see where the story is going. For McCarthy, this seems like an attempt to make a flat out commercial film in his own style. The result won't be an awards player like his last feature, "The Visitor," but it could be a nice early spring hit on the art house circuit for Searchlight.
"Win Win" is currently scheduled to open in limited release on March 18.
For more on the Sundance Film Festival, award season and entertainment buzz and news follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter @HitFixGregory.
Other Sundance 2011 Reviews:
"Martha Marcy May Marlene"