When you plunk down your money to see a movie, there’s more to consider than the question of “how good is it?” You also have to ask, where will this movie take me, and are these actors I want to spend time with? Opening this week are two modest pictures in which a superb actor co-stars with a novice. And they transport us to entirely different worlds. Win Win, by American writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent), takes us to a New Jersey suburb, and the unglamourous life of a chronic loser. Written and directed with impeccable authenticity, it offers further proof that Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Barney’s Version) is the most compelling nebbish to carve out a place for himself on the big screen since Woody Allen. (Plus he’s a lot more likable.) And his teenage co-star, Alex Shaffer, makes an impressive acting debut. Certified Copy (Copie conforme), a scenic puzzle immaculately composed by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, takes us to Tuscany with two beautiful people, Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche (Caché, Chocolat, The English Patient) and newcomer William Shimmel, an operatic baritone who has never acted in film. He is not so convincing. While Win Win is a strictly realist drama, Certified Copy is playful conceit. As the title suggests, authenticity, or lack of it, is what the film is all about.
Which is the better movie? I’d say Win Win wins, hands down. But if you put a gun to my head and told me I’d have to watch one or the other again and again, I’d prefer to be stranded in the romantic riddle of Certified Copy, despite some obvious flaws. Perhaps that just means I’d rather hang out with Juliette Binoche than with Paul Giamatti. I did that, in fact, one afternoon last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where Binoche would win Best Actress for Certified Copy. I took part in a group interview with some foreign journalists on the beach, and you can watch some video clips of our encounter at: Juliette Binoche in Cannes, where she talks about the strange “vibe” of revisiting Tuscany, where she shot The English Patient. More details about the two films:
Certified Copy is a two-hander, a walking-and-talking drama in a picturesque locale, and in that regard it bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. It, too, is tale of a headstrong Frenchwoman who meets an Anglo author in mid-book tour, takes him on an afternoon jaunt, and tempts him to delay his departure. As she looks for an opening in his English armour, their bantering argument takes a twist when they’re mistaken for a married couple. As they stroll the southern Tuscan village of Lucignano, they begin acting the part, dredging up passions and resentments that never existed. But at a certain point we start to wonder if, in fact, these two characters have known each other all along, and simply play-acting. Of course, the riddle is never resolved.
The fact that Binoche’s co-star, English opera tenor William Shimmel, had never acted before nicely compounds their abrasive chemistry, up to a point. Because he’d never been on a film set, and their Iranian director, who’s English is poor, was focused on composition, Binoche virtually directed the dialogue. “I was driving the whole deal,” she told me in Cannes. “It was an almost orgasmic experience after every take.” Her performance is stellar, and worthy of the Best Actress award she received at the festival. But Shimell is no match for her. His poker-assed English dignity goes only so far. And when he’s called upon the express real emotion, his portrayal of repressed anger is stilted. But then again, perhaps that’s because it’s the character who is play-acting, if the first-date-with-a-stranger scenario is indeed a charade. Either way, this mobius strip of a movie feels lop-sided. We feel Binoche is doing all the heavy-lifting and Shimmel is just along for the ride.
Win Win takes place in and around the world of high school wrestling, but it’s not what you’d call a wrestling movie. Or even a sports movie. The title is ironic; it’s not about winning, but about how you play the game—the big game of behaving with human decency. Mike (Giamatti) is a suburban father who has a ramshackle practice as an elder-care lawyer but whose real passion is coaching the local high school wrestling team. The plot kicks in when Mike, who’s having trouble making ends meet, gives in to an ethical lapse in judgment: he tells a judge that he’s willing to act as the legal guardian of one of his clients, Leo (Burt Young), who’s beginning to suffer dementia. Pocketing the $1,500-a-month stipend for taking care of Leo, Mike then places him in a retirement home at Leo’s expense, although he’s told the judge that Leo has expressed a firm desire to keep living at home. It’s obvious that, like a gun introduced into the first act of a play, this not-so-white lie will come back to blow up in Mike’s face before we’re done.
Meanwhile, Leo’s teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer) shows up, escaping his drug-addicted mother who’s in rehab. And he just happens to be a championship wrestler who’s itching to get back on the mat. Mike rushes to enroll him school, and in no time his bleach-blond ringer is turning a squad of losers into a winning team. Rooting from the sidelines are a couple of assistant coaches trying to relive their own glory days, the sad-sack Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) and the over-eager Terry (Bobby Cannavale).
While all this may sound a bit contrived, we’re won over by the depth of the characters and fine detail of their world. If the relationships ring true, that’s probably because McCarthy, a former high-school wrestler, co-wrote Win Win with a former wrestling buddy and current New Jersey lawyer, Joe Tiboni. Write about what you know, they say.
I should add that Amy Ryan (The Office, In Treatment) portrays Giamatti’s wife, and brings startling emotional clarity to every scene she’s in. Finally, Shaffer, casts as the wrestling ace, is in fact a championship wrestler, and his acting debut has the kind of artless naivete that only an inexperienced performer can pull off. The filmmakers decided it might be easier to teach a wrestler to act than teach an actor to wrestle. Smart move.