While wary of classification in general, filmmakers and cinephiles resist associations to the “sports movie” the most. The athlete’s journey to the final match, the win- or lose-all moment, is often simplified into mass culture. The Coen brothers reflected this distrust in Barton Fink, when the title character is assigned to write a “Wallace Beery wrestling picture.” The dailies Barton (John Turturro) views of the leading man aping in the ring inspires the new-to-Hollywood playwright to undercut the formula. (The cynical studio boss, meanwhile, cans the script.)
Film enthusiasts wary of the sports film, especially the boxing/wrestling pic, dislike its plot formula. These detractors ignore the distinct psychology of the onscreen athlete, which is more important to the tradition than the common formulas. As any serious athletes or coaches know, a sport becomes a way of life, possibly a near obsession. Even if used for exercise and not competition, the sport turns into ritual and a piece of identity. It shapes life choices far beyond the field/court/mat. When an athlete competes, he or she spends as much time thinking about technique and discipline when away from the sport. Should a film capture this lifestyle, then it reflects the character motivation behind the narrative. Hence, the boxer is well suited for the genre, as the sport requires extended training time, enough buildup for a big match-up. The feeling is more intense for teenage athletes. Orson Welles famously said that film editing isn’t an aspect of filmmaking, it is the aspect. To a committed teen athlete in competition, their sport is the aspect of their adolescence.
In Tom McCarthy’s Win Win (2011) sports may seem to be the means for drama. But when considering the importance of wrestling to the characters, the sport shapes character and narrative. Much of Win Win does concern a family with a father down on his luck. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a suburban lawyer with co-ownership of his practice who sees business drying up. By serving less-powerful clients (mainly the elderly), he practices law with pride and less reward. His passion is coaching high school wrestling, a job that when it does pay, offers little (as participants – yours truly included, formerly – know well). Coaches commit to a team six days a week for the feeling and not the funds.
As Mike experiences stress from work, peaking in occasional panic attacks, he cannot stand seeing his team lose. But his relationship to the players and coaching staff, which his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) soon joins, keep the dream alive. The camaraderie offers to Mike the kind of social community that has declined in American since the middle 20th century. This “social club” offers Mike an escape from his financial worries as he returns to youthful pursuits amid middle age/-class anxieties. As usual for McCarthy (and Giamatti), the depiction reads true. It surely helped that the writer-director wrestled on the Overbrook High School team, the school featured in the film, and researched the project by attending matches at the school with his old wrestling teammate, co-writer Joe Tiboni, a New Jersey lawyer. (According to McCarthy’s introduction to the shooting script, their skills on the mat were like Stemmler’s [David W. Thompson], a team misfit serving as comic relief.)
McCarthy’s understanding extends beyond his reference point (the players) to the coaches. The evening release of coaching is temporary for Mike. He skips on repairs for his home and aged office – the respective dying tree trunk and clanging boiler signal his growing unease. He cannot obtain overflow work from other firms. After meeting with an elderly client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), Mike learns of the sizable payment for taking the incapacitated into custody. In court, Mike pleads to take custody of Leo, only to pocket the funds while using Leo’s sizable savings to place him in a senior living facility. McCarthy’s gamble with the Giamatti character recalls an earlier role. In 2003’s Sideways, the actor plays another likable (for the most part) loser, Miles, who jars viewers when visiting his mother, before his vacation, to steal money from her. Writer and director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor polarize the audience: only those committed to Miles will proceed. Many thought Payne and Taylor to be demeaning their own creation, thus setting him up as a whipping boy for sadistic black comedy. But the film is honest in its depiction of flawed character. Win Win takes a similar approach. In reference to much of the sports genre, the premise is ironic. The hero usually shows heart from the beginning; eventually a temptation will have us question his morality. Hence, many think the film to be abandoning the tradition instead of expanding it. For McCarthy (and Payne) a lack of sympathy is the premise. Character is the focus instead of narrative serving formula.
As a lawyer, Mike works in a prized profession of America, one of the two (along with doctors) that the middle class wishes for its children. Law students suffer rigorous training with the promise of financial reward upon graduation. (William Lutz, emeritus rhetoric scholar/professor who earned a law degree while teaching, describes the law student’s entertainment allowance as one night per month.) In practice, a lawyer must produce billable hours to triumph financially, lest he or she enter public legal service. Having his own practice but serving the elderly, Mike is in financial stress under the American dream’s façade, one so strong that he cannot reveal the situation to his wife.
The second, unlikely “win” for Mike (after scoring money for Leo’s custody) comes in the form of Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson who arrives unexpectedly. With a bleached-blonde mop of hair, Kyle looks like a hardened teen. Info about his personal history with an abusive mother confirms it and offers him acceptance into the Flaherty household. When Kyle visits wrestling practice and takes the mat, Mike has found his team’s (and his own) salvation, the blondness now angelic. The coincidental arrival of Kyle abandons realism for a taste of fairy tale. It would seem like a fissure in the narrative fabric, if this weren’t a sports film. The genre allows for chance match-ups and triumphs that seem so magical they feel mythical.
The American idiom “win-win,” popularized by Stephen Covey in the bestseller Seven Habits of Effective People, carries the flavor of its motivational speaking origins. The phrase’s brevity and reduplication imply the tone of business speech, something akin to David Mamet’s always be closing. The phrase connotes much more in McCarthy’s film than its putative meaning: the structure of wrestling matches coming back-to-back at a meet; the repetitive nature of athletic (and legal) practice to ensure triumph; the suggestion that personal goals must be met in succession to equal continual success. In turn, Mike’s “win-win” concerning the Poplar family will threaten both ends he’s found. As usual for McCarthy, winning means a man coming clean.
With redemption worked into the sports genre, the battles on the mat underscore the tests outside of it, a trait of the tradition’s finest. McCarthy’s too gusty a filmmaker to let any threat stay submerged. Kyle’s mother eventually arrives, her appearance distracting Kyle so much that he nearly loses all he’s reclaimed as a standout wrestler. The athlete’s body is subject to his mind, just as Mike is only as good as his actions. For the latter, the wins must continue.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.