Tom McCarthy makes modest, gently askew comfort films in which protagonists in need of a jump-start bond with seemingly incompatible strangers, with enriching results for all.
“Win Win,” his third outing following “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” doesn’t pave new ground and lacks boldness and depth. But the writer-director again delivers an irresistible helping of heart and uplift.
The times are hard, the place is New Jersey, and the people are ordinary, decent suburban folk in this atypical indie in which the primary family is a functional churchgoing bunch whose preferred expletive, as revealed in a cute running bit, starts with “s.”
Paul Giamatti, in sad-sack mode, plays Mike, a married-with-kids elder-issues attorney and volunteer high school wrestling coach.
Introduced in a jogging scene in which he’s passed on the trail by two speedier, leaner runners (a Paul Giamatti moment), Mike is struggling to keep his legal practice afloat and improve his pathetic wrestling team.
The plot centers on two misdeeds Mike commits to achieve this.
First, Mike becomes guardian to Leo (Burt Young), a living-at-home client with dementia. Violating the deal, he places Leo in a care facility and pockets the $1,500 compensation check.
Then, Mike and his initially wary wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), take Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who has run away from his druggie mother, into their home. To Mike’s delight, Kyle turns out to be a wrestling champ. Mike exploits his talents.
But Mike’s good fortune collapses, naturally. His doings become known after Kyle’s straight-out-of-rehab mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), arrives with her own plans for Leo and Kyle.
The movie gets overly simple and feel-good as the situation threatens to crush Mike professionally, and shatter his home life too. McCarthy resolves Mike’s predicaments too painlessly and neatly.
But McCarthy compensates for this dearth of dramatic risk by making the human-contact elements reverberant and funny. One-dimensional Cindy aside, his characters are likeable in their humanity and entertaining in their flaws.
Their collective spark feels genuine. The quirky, cozy small-time moments McCarthy serves up, including a clanging boiler and a pancake breakfast, are believable and prompt smiles.
All of which totals an unchallenging but winning movie about expanded families, cockeyed but indispensable friends, and the dilemma over whether to commit minor fraud when the family health insurance bill needs paying.
McCarthy solidifies his distinction as a filmmaker whose name you can associate with a distinctive style of artistry and whose movies you can look forward to.
The performances are superb. Standouts include Giamatti — who’s perfectly cast as the slouchy, slipping Mike — and McCarthy alum Bobby Cannavale, hilarious as Mike’s cluelessly go-getting best friend.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Shaffer
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy
Running time 1 hour 46 minutes