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Paul Giamatti Scores In Another Winner

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win" - opening today in the Triangle.

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win" (2011).

“Win Win” (Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2011)

I was a little worried during the first 5 minutes of this comedy drama. Mainly since it starts with a certain four-lettered word (the one that begins with “s”) being spoken by a little girl (Clare Folley).

For a few minutes the word becomes a bit of a running gag, and I feared I was in for a “Juno”-type time with cutesy quirky humor, and over-simplified characters.

I needn’t have worried because director McCarthy (“The Station Agent”, “The Visitor”) gradually shapes a realistic slice of small town life centering on Paul Giamatti as a worn down, yet still determined, New Jersey attorney who works nights as a high school wrestling coach.

But don’t expect “The Bad News Bears” here. The film is more about the situations around those moves on the gymnasium floor, with Giamatti trying to figure out how to deal with one of his star wrestlers – Alex Shaffer (a former wrestling champ in real life).

Giamatti gets involved in the troubled teenager’s life when he becomes the guardian of a rich old man (Burt Young) just so he could collect a caretaker fee as his law business has been suffering.

Shaffer, as Young’s grandson, shows up trying to get away from his junkie mother (Melanie Lynskey), so Giamatti, and his wife (Amy Ryan) find themselves having to take care of the bleach blond boy.

In one of the film’s only comical contrivances, Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti’s best friend is constantly fretting over his ex-wife. However Giamatti and Cannavale’s exchanges are fluid and funny enough to make up for that.

Much better are Giamatti’s convincing relationships with Ryan and Shaffer. There’s also Jeffrey Tambor playing just the right note as Giamatti’s shrugging assistant coach.

Giamatti, which I believe is Latin for “good flick,” never disappoints in his sharp depictions of schlubby men on the edge of total defeat. His performance here is another winner (sorry), as his desperate (at times devious) dealings are utterly believable, sympathetic, and ultimately endearing.

When that initial fear of cringe-inducing quirkiness faded after the first few minutes, I was quite pleased at how McCarthy’s movie played out.

I predict audiences will be too, for “Win Win” is a fine underdog indie that doesn’t try too hard to get you on its side.

“Win Win” opens today in Raleigh at the Colony Theater, in Cary at the Galaxy Cinema, in Durham at Southpoint Cinemas, and in Chapel Hill at the Chelsea.

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