Exploiting the elderly

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Win Win (M). Director: Thomas McCarthy. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young. 106 minutes

Yesterday Frank Brennan wrote of the 'social determinants' (such as education, housing, income, connectedness) that have an impact on indivuduals' health. This calls to mind psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of need', which ranks physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self-actualisation and self-transcendence as factors determining a person's growth and wellbeing.

The Salvos, among whom I had my religious upbringing, had a simplified version of this for their social outreach mantra. Founder Wiliam Booth spoke of 'soup, soap and salvation', evoking the need to meet people's physical needs along with their spiritual needs.

But 'salvation', stripped of its esoteric connotations, might also be seen to refer simply to emancipating individuals from social structures or material lacks that keep them oppressed. A new film Win Win offers several models of people in need of this kind of salvation, to varying degrees.

First there is Mike (Giamatti), a small-town lawyer who is reluctant to reveal to his wife — the mother of their two young daughters — Jackie (Ryan) that his practice is in dire financial straits. To his credit the financial difficulties are due to the fact that his focus is not on high profile, high paying cases, but on assisting elderly and put-down people with tricky legal minutiae.

One such client is Leo (Young), whose ailing mental health, and the fact that his only daughter is out of contact in another state, mean he is due to become a ward of the state, and to be forced from his house into a nursing home. He needs 'salvation' in the form of personal care that is arguably better provided by loved ones than an institution.

But Mike's compassion is overrun by his material needs. He quietly decides to exploit Leo's plight. He convinces a judge to allow him to become Leo's guardian — which will entitle him to a monthly payment from the State — on his word that he'll allow Leo to stay in his own house. But, not wanting the additional burden Leo will place on him and his family, Mike shifts him into the home anyway.

Win Win finds strength in understatement. Mike's moral and ethical breach occurs without fanfare or fingerprinting from unobtrusive director McCarthy. Giamatti is a likable actor, and his performance here is so plump with soulful, sad silences, that — rather than judging him — we feel concern for him and his ill conceived scheme, and the way it might lead him to further corruption.

Of course we also feel for Leo, whom Mike has betrayed. Yet we sense Mike is oppressed not only by his own material need, but by the way this need has moved him to act against his better nature.

The situation becomes more complex. Kyle (Shaffer), Leo's blonded teenage grandson, turns up. His mother (Leo's absentee daughter) is in rehab, and Kyle has fled from her abusive boyfriend to the town where he knows his grandfather lives. He too is in need of salvation, or at least respite.

Mike and Jackie take him in. Jackie initially acts out of a sense of duty ('We have no choice') in the face of her distrust of the rebellious boy, and eventually through a sense of motherly nurturing and protection. Life with Mike's family provides Kyle with some of the stability and security he has lacked. He starts going to school and joins the wrestling team, in which Mike is an assistant to the coach.

Kyle turns out to be a prodigy and instant star of the struggling team. Mike, himself a one-time wrestler, and his best friend Terry (Cannavale), gain vicarious pleasure and much needed inspiration from the boy's increasingly impressive victories.

In this there is a sense that Kyle, like his grandfather, is being exploited by the mostly well-meaning Mike to meet his own emotional needs. But neither boy nor old man are means to ends. Mike's manipulations are exposed when Kyle's mother (Lynksey) eventually surfaces, and Mike sees in her an extreme refraction of his own subtle greed and corruption.

Kyle and Leo are vulnerable human beings, and only through compassion and understanding can salvation can be theirs. By favouring these over material preoccupations, Mike can save himself, too.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was a member of the TeleScope jury at Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Win Win, Thomas McCarthy, Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, Alex S



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Existing comments

Thanks for this review, Tim;, any fillum with Paul Giamatti in it has an instant support base. He's a class act. It's also a healthy reminder of the old notion of 'quid pro quo' - many motivations are complex in life, and we all have inherent expectations that our actions will engender other's actions. You wisely point out the reality that we are all agents in our own 'salvation', also. It would be great if someone somewhere came up with a new term that captured the human need for/understanding of salvation/redemption/renewal, coined without the baggage that spiritual abuse and cultural expectations has loaded onto the word 'salvation'.

Barry G | 25 August 2011  

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