Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small time lawyer with mounting bills and a failing practice. To make extra money to attend to his financial problems, Mike finagles to become the ward to an elderly client (Burt Young). Mike promptly, and quietly, double-crosses the mentally incapacitated man and collects his assistance money from the State.
At the same time, Mike is also failing at his gig as a volunteer high school wrestling coach. When Leo's teen angst-ridden grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) appears on the doorstep Mike finds his fortunes changing once again. Kyle turns out to be a masterful wrestler. Mike quickly moves to make the boy to become his prized wrestler. At the same time, Mike positions himself to become a surrogate father-figure for the troubled teen. Kyle is a emotionally detached wreck thanks to his neglectful, drug addicted mother. Mike sees the problem but allows his greed to overcome his better nature and continues to use the boy and the boy's grandfather for his own needs.
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This may seem like one heavy, dark story. In truth, this is a rather pleasant and enjoyable. Paul Giamatti is a firm anchor for the film and gives yet another endearing performance. Perhaps it is the fact that he constantly looks like he's on the verge of an explosive coronary, but the man presents stress and frustration in a sympathetic way, one cannot help but root for him. It is performances such as this one which make him one of my favorite actors. He is under-appreciated by the general public and deserves far more credit for his body of work.
Giamatti and his strong supporting cast (including Amy Ryan, another actor who is unfairly under the public's radar) are aided by a somewhat quirky but smart script. Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent - a film I did not enjoy) remains in the familiar territory of despondent, struggling characters trying in vain to connect with one another.
McCarthy's writing is suitably sparse and dry. An example of his reduced style is when Mike is discussing a failing boiler with his business partner. The boiler needs to be fixed and when Mike is told the massive amount of money it will cost to replace the thing he responds by bellowing a curse word. He then resigns and mumbles that they will have to live with the boiler's knocking. This moment establishes Mike's financial woes, the main motivational thrust of the character. It is a very brief moment that doesn't seem to have much depth. McCarthy's handling of the moment manages the feed the remainder of the film. It is sly delivering of important points such as this which make this film so engaging.
There is a very good chance you have missed this film. It wasn't a wide release and it did not receive broad marketing. This is very much worth looking for. Put down the big Hollywood McMovie for a night and sit back with this quiet, well-constructed film.
Worldview: McCarthy has a knack for showcasing losers losing at life. In the case of this story he gets us to back a loser doing evil against those who need his help. Interestingly, the depth of Mike's treachery is well buried until he is found out. The audience isn't given a real reason to get down on Mike's actions. He understand his motivation and Giamatti makes Mike so sympathetic you want things to work out for him. The problem is that instead of helping himself out, Mike helps himself to others. He benefits from others misfortunes while pretending to be performing charity. What can be more despicable?
It should be noted that the film does come to condemn Mike and he is forced by conscience and circumstance to do the right thing. When a film presents a bad man as the hero it is critical that the story provide a condemnation for his actions. If the film fails to clearly state that the man is performing evil then the filmmaker is providing tacit support for that behavior. The point of stories are to present a question and an answer (which is why the ending is called "the MORAL of the story"). When that moral is buried, you as the audience need to be very mindful of what is really being said.
Cautions: The content of the film is rather tame with the exception of language. Paul Giamatti is one of the world's preeminent curse slingers. The man can spit out a swear word with a comical punch unlike any other working actor. Obviously, some folks will want to avoid the production if they are sensitive to casual swearing.