Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Win Win -- mistakes, deception and second chances

Director: Thomas McCarthy, 2011. (R)

Cross coming-of-age with mid-life crisis, throw in sports and you get this comic drama. Never quite fitting into a single genre neatly, it nevertheless hits the high notes of all the above.

Director McCarthy has shown himself to be a promising up-and-comer in his first two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor. Here, producing and directing from his own screenplay, he raises the bar. This indie movie is heart-warming without being melodramatic. Entertaining while communicating themes and morals that align with the Christian faith, this is a win-win movie.

One reason the film is so good is the acting. Paul Giamatti (Sideways, The Ides of March) stars as Mike Flaherty, a down-on-his-luck attorney and family man. Giamatti is the homely everyman that we might find living next-door to us: no airs or good looks, just ordinary humanity. Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) plays his wife, Jackie, a woman struggling to raise her kids in a middle-class home depending on her husband to bring home the bacon. Together they bring a reality to this family. Then there’s Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as Mike’s friend Terry, a man-child whose wife has left him and who seems to have no control over his tongue even if his heart is in the right place. Jeffrey Tambor (The Invention of Lying) is quirky as Mike’s side-kick wrestling coach. But stealing the show is Alex Shaffer as teen-age Kyle. His performance is spot-on; he totally embodies a teen-age boy, speaking in mono-tones and single syllables, he is the heart of the movie and its focus.

As we meet Mike, we discover he is low on clients and working as a high-school wrestling coach to make ends meet. His team has lost all their matches, he is losing business, but as the tag-line says, “In the game of life, you can’t lose ‘em all?” Or can you? He is disheartened, suffering from panic attacks and is perhaps a payday away from losing it all.

When he represents elderly Leo (Burt Young) in court, where Leo is being declared mentally incompetent, an opportunity falls into Mike’s lap. Leo wants to live at home, but the court wants to send him off to a retirement home where he can be cared for by nurses. Instead, Mike volunteers to be Leo’s guardian, thereby allowing him to remain in his own home. Of course, such philanthropism is spurred by the monthly $1500 paycheck that accompanies guardianship. And then Mike carts Leo off to the retirement home anyway!

When Jackie finds out about their new dependent, she questions Mike’s reasons but he keeps the money a secret. But when Leo’s out-of-state grandson Kyle shows up on his doorstep Mike and Jackie have no choice but to take him in. When he turns out to be a star wrestler, Mike’s fortunes seem to be on the rise. Then his junkie mom arrives to claim him . . . or at least to claim the guardianship and the money that goes with it, and things get complicated fast.

Win Win is surprisingly full of redemptive themes: love, forgiveness, humanity. It shows a family under strain and depicts its strengthening to overcome such obstacles. When Mike and Jackie work together they do gain small and bigger victories. The strains of life are normal. We all face them. But it is how we react to them and handle them that cause us to grow in character or not. With Kyle as a catalyst, they have something to rally around.

The real moral dilemma in the film, though, is in the deception that Mike creates and continues to walk in. There are always consequences to such deception. In the film, Mike seems to be serving Leo, sacrificing his own time for a good cause. But his apparent selflessness is in reality selfishness. His lie is eventually discovered. When we lie, and we all do this, we hope to get away with it. But God sees all things. He knows what we do. The writer of Proverbs said, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will not go free” (Prov. 19:5). Lying and dishonesty lead to inevitable doom.

In contrast, when times get tough, honesty is always the best policy. It may cause hardship and may cost us some sacrifice, but such consequences promote right relationship. An unselfish act, even when done for the wrong reasons, can touch multiple lives, changing them for the better, as it did here.

Indeed, one of the messages of Win Win is that everyone makes mistakes. But it is how you deal with them that show who you are. Mike made a huge mistake. Kyle made some mistakes. Each had at least one second chance and chose a path that was bordered with forgiveness, at least in the long run. We make mistakes. When we do, we get to choose: will we cover them up, minimize them, or even blame others? Or will we man up and accept responsibility and take what is coming to us?

When we think of our sin in this context, whether it is lying, cheating, stealing or something even worse, we have the same choice. We can blame someone else, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden (Gen. 3:12-13). Or we can confess it to God and claim the forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 1:9). If we place our faith in him who has paid the price for our sin already, we will find that God himself is ready to give us a second chance. This time, we will have true life in Christ (Jn. 10:10)! This is a win-win situation.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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