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Director sees movie as an allegory for Wall Street crisis

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

After his success with the melancholic, redemptive tales of "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor," writer-director Tom McCarthy decided he wanted to have a little fun with his next film.

Along with writing partner and lifelong friend Joe Tiboni, McCarthy set out to revisit their youth in suburban New Jersey with a story about a struggling lawyer who has as much trouble paying his bills as he has in notching wins for the high school wrestling team he coaches.

McCarthy says he envisioned "Win Win" as a character-driven comedy that was a little sloppier than his more serious early work.

Despite his desire for a more rough-hewn comedy, however, McCarthy could only stray so far from the thoughtfulness that typifies his movies. Leave it to a graduate of the Yale School of Drama to invoke Rembrandt's painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel when referencing a critical scene in a sports comedy.

In "Win Win," eldercare lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, a McCarthy friend from Yale) makes an unethical and out-of-character decision that will earn him $1,500 a month. Although it seems a victimless crime, Mike realizes his plan to innocuously swindle the state might have unintended consequences when his client's grandson, Kyle, appears.

Though the scenario offers solid boilerplate for situational comedy, McCarthy says he realized the story resonated with him on a much deeper, sociological level.

"That was what was most intellectually engaging about this project to me," McCarthy said while in Austin to attend South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in March. "He has a family and he lives in town and he's a good guy, but he did this thing. How do we reconcile that? That to me was speaking very directly to where we are as a society, especially financially."

Though he migrated from the suburbs years ago to attend college, McCarthy says he wanted to revisit the area without cynicism and look at how thousands of people are trying to create a safe and happy family. McCarthy set the film in his and Tiboni's hometown of New Providence, N.J., the home for many people who work on Wall Street. And the predicament faced by Giamatti's Flaherty in "Win Win" serves as an allegory for the financial collapse of 2008, McCarthy says.

"I don't think they're all evil people; I'm not a big believer in that," McCarthy says of financial workers. "My family works on Wall Street. But there were some really bad choices made by decent people. Too many things like this happen, and we say, 'Oh, those guys are bad guys. We're in this situation cause of bad guys.' I think we're in this situation because collectively we've made some pretty bad choices."

The wayward high school wrestler Kyle, who eventually becomes a surrogate son in the Flaherty family, serves as a bit of an antidote to the reckless and fear-inspired selfishness of Flaherty. Though Kyle might not always make the right choices — yes, he'll steal the occasional car — he obeys a certain code, refusing to take the easy way out of difficult situations. McCarthy sees in his obdurate but honorable hero a kind of warrior who represents self-regulation.

The humor in "Win Win" derives from Flaherty's scheming, as the frustrated everyman tries to block all of the holes in the dam he has created against the truth. But the film's philosophical core, shaped by bad choices made my good people, echoes Kyle's sense of nobility that McCarthy finds reassuring.

"The movie wasn't about what was happening a year ago or two years ago \u2026 it was about looking forward, I think, a little bit more," McCarthy said. "Look, everyone's going to be in this position for the next 15, 20, 25 years. It's not going away. I think it's a question of how we proceed with a sense of responsibility and grace. That to me is interesting."

modam@statesman.com