(director/writer: Tom McCarthy; screenwriters: based on a story by Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni; cinematographer: Oliver Bokelberg; editor: Tom McArdle; music: Lyle Workman; cast: Paul Giamatti (Mike Flaherty), Amy Ryan (Jackie Flaherty), Bobby Cannavale (Terry Delfino), Jeffrey Tambor(Stephen Vigman), Burt Young (Leo Poplar), Melanie Lynskey (Cindy), Alex Shaffer (Kyle), Margo Martindale (Eleanor), David Thompson (Stemler), Nina Arianda (Shelly), Sharon Wilkins (Judge Lee), Clare Foley (Abby); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mary Jane Skalski/Michael London/Lisa Maria Falcone/Tom McCarthy; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2011)

Cute and smart indie about ordinary folks in New Jersey and how they handle their small problems.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Actor turned director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”/”The Visitor”)directs this cute and smart indie about ordinary folks in New Jersey and how they handle their small problems. It’s based on the story by McCarthy and Joe Tiboni. It’s a sweet comedy, a rich study in character and a serious family drama, but has no great ambitions or any philosophical messages or is it judgmental about why almost every character is flawed (the exception being the ideal feisty wife and perfect mother played terrifically by Amy Ryan).

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a good husband and father of two daughters, a struggling lawyer working with the elderly and moonlighting as the high school wrestling coach. Considered a pillar of the community of New Providence, New Jersey, the stressed-out Mike over his slow business pulls a shady deal in court in order to keep up his modest middle-class style, as he talks the judge into letting him be the guardian of the wealthy local resident suffering from early-stages of dementia named Leo Poplar (Burt Young). Mike’s regular client lives alone and his only child, an estranged daughter can’t be located. Even though Leo wants to live at home, Mike cuts corners ethically and gets him settled in a good private nursing home with him as guardian. As a guardian, the state forks over to Mike every month a check for $1, 500, even though he’s cared for in the nursing home (I’m telling you, lawyers…you can’t even trust the good ones!).

Soon the state of Ohio wrestling high school champ, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s laconic grandson he never met, is on Leo’s doorsteps as a runaway seeking shelter from his Columbus residing substance-abuser self-absorbed single mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey). She’s Leo’s estranged daughter, now in a rehab program. Kyle runs away to visit Leo, and ends up living in Mike’s basement. The kid joins the losing wrestling team, and the team starts winning. If the team wins the next event it will advance to the state finals, but Kyle’s horrid uncaring mother shows up and has hired a lawyer (Margo Martindale) to upset the current court arrangement. How the angry, disaffected and confused kid and the agenda-driven adults handle this dilemma, gets resolved in a genuine but cunning way. Though it has many sitcom formulaic plot lines, a tad too much cuteness for my taste and a disarming feel-good signature, it still comes out smelling as delicious as a New Jersey garden because all the characters seemed like real folks and how they end up arranging things in such a tidy knot at the end seemed like what such flawed folks would do to clean up their mess in a conventional pic like this one. It shows that even by reaching out a little might be just enough, that one doesn’t have to be perfect to make a difference in helping out someone else.

Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale are on hand as Giamatti’s buddy assistant coaches, who add comic relief. Tambor by his serious deadpan expressions and Cannavale by his dopey clowning around. But the film is held together by Giamatti’s likable, pitch-perfect performance as the central figure in this modern-day moral drama, who seems to be doing the right thing even when he’s not–with the idea being that in America, most everyone deserves another chance.

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