The Films of 2011: Win Win

I caught the recent film Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy) on video this week—mainly because I had free access to it and figured anything starring Paul Giamatti would be worth a look.  But while Giamatti does the best that he can with the material, he’s more or less wasted in a part that feels like a cliché of the roles he played so wonderfully in films like American Splendor (2003) and Sideways (2004).  How many times must we watch him play a shlubby, good-hearted but somewhat ethically compromised middle-aged loser type?  Win Win seems to prove that Giamatti has played out this phase of his career and that he would be better suited taking on more diverse roles, or at least better-written ones (like his smaller but more impressive supporting turn in The Ides of March).

Win Win is symptomatic of the type of safe, inoffensive, middlebrow indie fare that has its origins in films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), and the Wes Anderson corpus and that gave rise to Where the Wild Things Are (2009), 500 Days of Summer (2009), and this year’s Beginners, all of which have popularized a certain brand of quirkiness that I’ve come to abhor.  This quirkiness--basically a kind of family-friendly hipsterism--trades in montage sequences set to indie rock songs, sequences in which fashionably eccentric couples do whimsical things, wise but vulnerable children delivering weird-funny quips.  These films get off on their own cuteness.  While not as aggressively twee as, say, Beginners, Win Win trades in a kind of sitcom-y wackiness (Giamatti’s little girl loves to say “shit!”, etc.) that feels limp and uninteresting.  Although ostensibly about big dramatic things (like an old man who needs a caretaker and a teenage boy with a deadbeat mom), Win Win asks us to invest the least possible amount of mental energy in thinking about these characters or what is happening to them.  Watching it, I felt my brain switching over to autopilot.  It’s a movie that invites utterly passive viewing.  It follows that its conclusions are ones with which anyone who has watched an hour of primetime network television in the past twenty-five years will be familiar: when a child is in need of help, a family will go the extra mile to lend a hand; honesty is the best policy; even underneath the T-shirt of a tattooed, cigarette-smoking teenager, a loving heart beats.  I was stunned to read Glenn Kenny’s almost glowing review of this utterly banal film, in which a talented cast (Giamatti is supported by Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and Melanie Lynskey) is given dialogue that is not so much outright bad as utterly flavorless.  But, packaged as it is, Win Win’s blandness is covered over by the illusion of hipness.  It has been made to look cute and smart and quirky.  Win Win and Beginners have made me realize that if this is quirk, I’ve had my fill of it.


  1. While I completely agree with your characterization of the contemporary trend toward 'family-friendly hipsterism' getting off on its own cuteness--I found myself enjoying the modest, tastefully constructed Win Win. Having low expectations, just the well justified fear that I'd be exposed to yet one more exercise in puerile über-cleverness, I was relieved to discover it wasn't preoccupied with ingratiating itself or reveling in its own off-beatness. Win Win has a sweetness that feels mostly unforced and characters concisely and perceptively drawn. By comparison "Submarine" completely fits your description of quirk overkill. It starts off promisingly enough, then the theme song starts, tipping us off to what lies in store: style over substance. Holy shit I hate theme songs and music interludes! The last one I really enjoyed was in The Graduate. Even Somer's Town was almost ruined by one. Submarine made me want to smash something. You could have included History Boys on your list.

    Maybe I just hate the mainstreams co-option of youth culture, which is supposed to be a counter-culture. The fact that some people actually grow out of adolescence must play a role in their distaste, rather than nostalgia, for the institutionalized celebration of high-school disaffection and precocious, prematurely wise teen-agers.

    Every critic draws the line between high-spirited quirkiness and smug narcissism where he sees fit, of course.

    That being said I do think Little Miss Sunshine deserves the love it gets. It's a beautifully crafted film with an intriguing plot and enough bitterness to offset the whimsy; it's genuinely sweet rather than merely cute.

    It's a problem for critics when a film enjoys universal acclaim. I usually see films after they're out of the limelight, oblivious to the hype that may have surrounded them. I think that may favor less biased assessments.

  2. Thanks for your very insightful comment and for your thoughts on "Win Win." My assessment of it here is admittedly a bit harsh. But the film still strikes me as family-sitcom stuff, albeit fitted out with some first-rate acting talent. Sometimes this kind of quirky comedy does work, of course (I saw Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" this weekend and loved it, for instance), but the tone of this just seemed too cloying for my taste. To each his own, I guess. On your recommendation, I'll continue to avoid Submarine and History Boys.