Two weeks ago I commented on “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Aside from my comparison of the muscles and body types portrayed, I talked about a portrayal of a pretty Machiavellian criminal lawyer, Mike Haller played by Matthew McConaughey. Haller was a no-holds-barred pragmatist concerned almost exclusively (at least initially) with his own success and aggrandizement. While an interesting and attractive screen persona, not exactly what we are looking for in the ethical make-up of an officer of the court.
The other night we went to see a limited engagement showing of Thomas McCarthy’s new film “Win Win.” Any resemblance between lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) in “Win Win” and Mike Haller is, as they used to say in entertainment, “purely coincidental.” Other than that they both had the same first name – Mike – they could hardly have been less similar in character.
Haller was a somewhat glamorous wheeler-dealer and Flaherty a “schlepper.” Forget that Giamatti’s abs look more like the rest of us while McConaughey has ripped abs. Forget that Giamatti is short and a bit dumpy and that McConaughey is tall and slim. On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t forget these things, as the actors selected for the two parts “looked the parts.” I actually commented on looking the part a few weeks ago.
Let’s deal with the term “schlepper.” The word is the descriptive version of the verb to schlep. If you are from New York or environs, you use this Yiddish term of low-level (even affectionate) derogation on a regular basis. The Free Dictionary (www.thefreedictionary.com) defines “schlep” in the following way:
v.tr. To carry clumsily or with difficulty; lug: schlepped a shopping bag around town.
v.intr. To move slowly or laboriously: schlepped around with the twins in a stroller.
n. 1. An arduous journey.
2. A clumsy or stupid person.
Bullseye. Mike Flaherty is a good-natured, struggling lawyer who is a prototypical schlepper. Perfectly played by a middle-aged, jowly, pudgy, poor soul-looking actor, Paul Giamatti. Don’t misunderstand me here, I am a great fan of Giamatti. He was perfectly cast (I think) as John Adams in the TV miniseries. I loved him, and Marcia hated him, as Miles in “Sideways.” As we used to joke as kids, look up schlepper in the dictionary of life and you’ll find Giamatti’s picture. This does not diminish his formidable acting skills. He is terrific in the right part, and Mike Flaherty is the right part.
“Win Win” is a story about a low-energy, unremarkable New Jersey lawyer. The New Jersey part is important and the film portrays Flaherty, his wife, friends and associates well. They are exactly the kind of people I grew up with in that dingy place. I’m certain that that remark will elicit some negative response from people who thank that New Jersey is cool. Trust me on this one, it’s no Colorado or Alaska — It’s New Jersey, stupid.
Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is also perfectly cast — she is also vintage New Jersey. Ryan has an uncanny ability to be plain as dishwater at times and unexpectedly attractive at others. If that ain’t New Jersey, I don’t know what is. His friends and client are aptly played by Bobby Cannavle, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young – all perfect New Jersey types. Young plays Leo Poplar, one of Flaherty’s few clients. In desperation Flaherty commits himself to a marginally illegal act which becomes the focal point of this warm, sweet, funny and somewhat depressed story.
Marcia and I were especially taken with a young actor who played the pivotal role in “Win Win,” Poplar’s charmingly errant and undiscovered teenage grandson Kyle from Ohio. Kyle (Alex Shaffer) just appears on the stoop of Poplar’s abandoned home one day and quietly charms his way into the lives of Mike and Jackie Flaherty, his somewhat Alzheimerish grandfather Leo and the rest of the high school wrestling-crazed New Jersey community in which he lands. While Kyle is a essentially a runaway teenager, he is respectful and in possession of championship-level high school wrestling skills. To tell you more might ruin this very nice film. Coincidentally, apparently the real-life Alex Shaffer won a statewide wrestling championship in New Jersey in 2010.
Bernard A. Karshmer is a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is a past chair of the Denver Film Society and International Film Festival and currently chairs the Denver County Cultural Council.