First, before beginning, a note about bringing your five-year old children to R-rated movies. Fine, this movie didn’t deserve an R-rating. The worst it got was a little bad language. But, really, your child is going to be bored out of his mind anyway. Is Mars Needs Moms that bad? Can you not afford a babysitter?
If you really can’t afford a babysitter, you’re probably in the same boat as Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). This father of two small children is having a considerably hard time making ends meet as a small town attorney when he stumbles on the seemingly lucrative career of guardian. Leo (Burt Young in a standout role), his aging ward, requires only the occasional visit at the senior care center, and pays more than a thousand each month in kind. Things get complicated when Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes into the picture. Fleeing a drug-addled, neglectful mom, he seeks the guardianship of (who else?) Mike.
If this isn’t enough to make for a movie, don’t worry, there’s more. Mike is also a wrestling coach, and Kyle just happens to be a prodigy. Much of the movie’s action takes place in the dingy high school gyms of New Jersey, where Kyle and Mark fight out the terms of their relationship.
These interactions between father and adopted son make up the best parts of the movie. Kyle is no rebel without a cause, but a living, breathing teenager. His interactions with Paul Giamatti seem real and unforced. Shaffer is a remarkable character actor—easygoing when called for and tense when need be. Giamatti is a master loser, and his stress becomes our stress, so good is he at communicating the passion of his characters.
Yet, good acting aside, the plot never finds its way. Sure, there are a lot of complications, but they are never resolved in a satisfying or wholly organic way. Too many things are thrown at Mike for him to really make sense of any of them. At over an hour and forty minutes—it also feels a bit long when it shouldn’t.
But I liked the movie and its very modern brand of recession realism. I don’t mind seeing ugly people in ugly houses doing not so great. The family’s inability to make ends meet was not so strangely unfamiliar. But maybe it was too close to home for anyone to enjoy seeing on a Saturday. Not quite a comedy, and too much a drama—Win Win may be a mixed bag, but at least it feels authentically so.