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.