April 13 2011 12:00 AM

For director Tom McCarthy, it’s a ’Win Win’ situation


BIRMINGHAM — His movie is called "Win Win." But this particular Friday morning had almost been a lose/lose for writer-director Tom McCarthy.

He’d come to the Detroit area in late March for a whirlwind publicity tour. But a planned TV appearance fell apart at the last minute, his breakfast had not shown up and he’d accidentally been doused with hot coffee.

Yet McCarthy, 45, somehow rose above it; remember, this is the man who was Oscar-nominated for writing the screenplay of Disney/Pixar’s much-loved "Up" two years ago. Sitting in a suite at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel, he seemed eager to discuss his slightly bittersweet comedy about lawyer and volunteer high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who eventually has to wrestle with his conscience.

As a teenager in New Providence, N.J., McCarthy was a wrestler. "To this day, it’s not a marquee sport," he admitted. "It’s the bastard child of sports behind football and basketball. But I think there’s a kind of respect for it because people know what a brutal sport it is. It’s kind of a badge you wear: ’I survived.’"

Alex Shaffer, who plays the key role of Kyle, the phenomenal young wrestler Mike inadvertently discovers, was one such survivor: He won the New Jersey state wrestling championship in his weight class. Although Shaffer’s acting experience prior to the film was minimal, McCarthy wanted an athlete to ensure that the action on the mats looked genuinely grueling.

"We were at a screening the other night with Alex in Denver, and there were five guys who were wrestlers that showed up to watch; you can always tell a wrestler. I asked them, ’What did you think?’ And one of the guys said, ’Actually, we were just saying it’s surprisingly realistic.’ That’s high marks, when you hear them saying it’s the real deal."

The majority of "Win Win," however, takes place outside the gym. Kyle has fled to New Jersey to escape a messed-up mom (the excellent Melanie Lynskey), who’s in a rehab clinic in Ohio. Kyle’s grandfather (Burt Young) is one of Flaherty’s clients, which leads to Kyle and Flaherty meeting and realizing they can help each other out.

As in McCarthy’s previous films "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor," there’s a beautiful spontaneity and naturalness to the situations and the performances. That may stem from McCarthy’s background as an improvisational comedy performer, someone who was trained to think on his feet and adapt to shifting styles within a scene.

"It informs my writing," he said of his improv experience. "If you could see me at work, I’m always kind of talking things out, walking around my office and talking to myself like a crazy man. I highly recommend (improv work) for anyone who writes."

Being true to life can create problems, however. "Win Win," like "The King’s Speech," was slapped with an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, solely because of sports-related profanity that underscore the film’s authenticity.

Asked about the rating, McCarthy rolled his eyes. "Obviously, I’m frustrated there’s bad language in it, but I think it’s important for kids to see it. It’s a family movie with bad language in it; there’s bad language in the world.

"I had a woman tell me, ’I’d love to have my kids see this,’ and I said, ’Well, they can. But who’s gonna take them? You are.’ I would think if my kids are going to hear bad language in a movie, I would want to be there."

He took a deep breath. "And I feel kind of silly about the whole thing because I don’t think bad language is the biggest problem we have in the world."

’Win Win’ Opens Friday at Celebration!Cinema Lansing and other area theaters