It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness—depending on which movie you were sitting through.
Both Win Win and Carancho begin with hard-luck lawyers who pull a little light fraud to float them until their practices perk up. But one story (Win Win, a US film starring Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer) ends at a fuzzy, warm, learning-and-growing terminus. The other (Carancho, by Argentine director Pablo Trapero) ends in sadness, frustration, and death. It's tempting to draw some broad lesson about national temperaments or economics or whatever—but they're just two movies that begin in similar places and end up in very different ones. But taken together, they can be read as a morality tale: If you're Paul Giamatti and you fuck up once but you're basically good-hearted and eventually own up to it, things will turn out okay. If you're Ricardo Darín and you fuck up once and then keep doing fucked-up things to dig yourself out of your hole—well, you're fucked. Permanently.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a family man with a stumbling law practice (and a gig as a volunteer wrestling coach for the local high school's abysmal team) whose act of fraud involves taking on a senile and abandoned old client, telling the court he'll be the old man's guardian, and then shoving him in a home and collecting the guardianship checks. Not very nice.
Then the old man's grandson (Shaffer) turns up expecting to live at the senile old man's house, so Mike takes him in. Turns out, the kid is a sexy renegade—bleached hair, tattoos, taciturn manner—and an excellent wrestler. Mike registers him in high school and puts him on the team, they start winning some matches, sexy renegade adds some healthful spice to everyone's life, and all seems well. Then the boy's mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up directly from rehab and wants both her kid and the old man's guardianship checks. Mike lies, stammers, sighs, and eventually tells the truth. People are mad, but then people get over it.
The meat of the film is about the relationship between the kid and the middle-aged man—Mike rediscovering his pleasure in life through the sullen but sweet-hearted boy, who is something of a feral child. Barely raised by his mother and her string of jerky (and possibly abusive) boyfriends, he doesn't know how to dissemble. The boy never masks his anger and frustrations; the lawyer has made a career out of smiling through adversity. The boy smokes cigarettes out in the open; the lawyer crouches behind a Dumpster. The boy gets in trouble with the authorities for piddling offenses; the lawyer quietly steals from a senile old man and gets away with it. (Until he doesn't.) As critics have already said, Win Win is "heartfelt" and "off-center" and "oddly exhilarating." But its resolution is far less engaging than its ambiguous middle, where you get to watch good actors acting well.
Carancho is another kind of "heartfelt" and "oddly exhilarating"—it's from the darker, stickier corners of the human heart and as noir as the deep end of a gun barrel. A disbarred lawyer named Sosa (Darín) trolls the night streets of an Argentine city, chasing ambulances and looking for car-accident victims. He works for some vague and disturbing syndicate that finds lower-class victims who can't afford real lawyers, chisels large settlements out of insurance companies, and then gives the victims a tiny slice of the proceeds. Sosa supplements this bureaucratic-level scam by occasionally staging car accidents of his own for poor folks who need the money—in one horrifying scene, he meets a (complicit) old drunk in an alley, shoots him full of some painkillers, breaks his shin with a sledgehammer, and then has him walk in front of a car driven by one of Sosa's accomplices. The best-laid plans go askew; Sosa's poorly laid plan slides into a bloody, muddy ditch.
Meanwhile, our vulture has fallen in love with a pretty young doctor (Martina Gusman), a junkie who fixes herself with vials of narcotics stolen from the hospital's medicine locker. Together, they fall down a deep, deep well of fraud, intimidation, and violence. (But it looks like the sex is fun.) By the end, it seems that the vague syndicate not only controls the city's police force but the universe itself.
Like Win Win, Carancho has a moderately complicated plot that serves mostly as a vehicle for its actors—particularly Ricardo Darín's face. It's a craggy, baggy-eyed, and highly expressive face, sagging with exhaustion and humiliation but capable of sudden and spectacular passion and violence. And that face spends a lot of time bleeding. Carancho begins with some young guys beating the shit out of Sosa on a dark sidewalk. Sosa proceeds to get his ass beaten with fists, steering wheels, bottles, and a variety of other implements. He's stoic throughout—for a man caught in a very bad situation (of his own making), he's remarkably cool and calculated. But that, in the end, cannot save him, or his doctor-love.
Both films acknowledge that whatever mistakes we make or virtues we exemplify, we're all meat in the end. But in Win Win's New Jersey, we get to be mildly contented meat, simmering in our living rooms, eating hot dogs and reveling in the quirkiness of life. In Carancho's Argentina, we're all just hamburger, waiting for the grinder.