In a time when most movies are remakes, reboots or sequels based on known-quantity stories, writer-director Thomas McCarthy makes true originals. Though there's nothing new under the sun, try to think of some other American film that's just like his 2003 dramedy "The Station Agent" or his 2007 immigration-themed drama "The Visitor." When you're done wrestling with that, head on down to your local theater for McCarthy's latest, "Win Win."
McCarthy does have something of an M.O. in the way he invents and fleshes out characters, then has them meet under surprising circumstances. So goes the comedy-drama "Win Win," set in suburban New Providence, N.J. When we meet lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), he appears to be a born loser. His aging client base is shrinking, his office duplex is giving him $6,000 worth of plumbing agita, and the wrestling team he coaches (the New Providence High School Pioneers) is logy and uninspired.
Everything changes when Mike sees an opportunity to bring in some extra scratch by becoming the legal guardian of one of his clients, an elderly and mentally deteriorating man named Leo Poplar (Burt Young). This way, Mike can move Leo into a nice rest home that can shoulder the responsibility for daily care, occasionally check in on him, and collect a cool $1,500 a month. Though the breach of ethics is hardly "no foul," Mike sees it as "no harm," especially since Leo's family can't be bothered to step up.
A curveball arrives in the form of 16-year-old Kyle Timmons (acting neophyte Alex Shaffer), who's taken a bus from Ohio to crash with his Grandpa Leo. A smoker with a bruised eye, Kyle looks like trouble, and his sphinx-like flat affect leaves Mike and his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), guessing. Still, they take him in on a temporary basis as they attempt to contact Kyle's mother (and as Mike tries to keep his lie under wraps).
The laconic lad reveals unexpected depths, including an astonishing gift for wrestling that quickly has Mike seeing medals. Kyle's mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), won't be winning any awards for child-rearing or elder care, but she may yet prove a spoiler for both the wrestling season and Mike's legal career.
McCarthy does a fine job of juggling the domestic mystery, situational comedy and inevitable drama, and his terrific cast is well-suited to the deadpan ethical satire. Giamatti and Ryan are typically sterling, Shaffer proves both amusing and credible, and Bobby Cannavale ("The Station Agent") and Jeffrey Tambor ("Arrested Development") make a great, buffoonish double act as Mike's friends and unlikely assistant coaches.
Jackie's observation "We all do stupid things" is but one of the poignant lessons learned by Mike and Kyle -- about morality, trust and, yes, the true meaning of winning -- that will resonate with both adult and teen viewers. Parents shouldn't be scared off by the "R" rating (for profanity); McCarthy's film makes for a "win win" day at the movies, with talking points to follow.