Who's In It: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale, David Thompson
The Basics: Low-key indie family dramedies are never easy to encapsulate, but here goes... Paul Giamatti is a suburban lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach who, because he's kind and decent and lives in 2010 and isn't a CEO of anything, is struggling to provide for his family. When given the opportunity to earn extra money as legal guardian for an elderly man with the onset of dementia, he makes the unethical decision of pocketing the stipend and putting the man into a nursing home. The fallout from that wrong turn involves the old guy's no-good mess of a daughter and, more importantly, his grandson on the run who also happens to be a very talented high school wrestler. Complications pin them all to the mat. That's wrestling talk, FYI.
What's The Deal: I forgave this movie its too-neat, too-tidy, let-everyone-off-the-hook resolution because of what it did well on its way there. (Sorry if that counts as kind of a spoiler, but it's important not to set your realism expectations too high.) It's funny, it's intelligent, it dares to be about regular people with a script that doesn't saddle those people with the usual indie film oddball personality defects/fetishes/fake-charming obsessions. It's just about a family on the verge of financial trouble who wind up doing both the wrong thing and the right thing simultaneously, almost accidentally in fact, and it's warmhearted in way that doesn't feel too oppressive. In a time when big studios don't even try to make movies like this anymore, to grump too hard about minor disappointment feels wrong.
Who Keeps It On Its Feet: Paul Giamatti has the gift of taking movies that are falling into a million horrible pieces (like Lady In The Water) and making them watchable. Here he comes off as exactly the sort of somewhat annoyed, somewhat anxious, somewhat morally conflicted schlubby guy he's perfected in other films. He conveys human ambiguities and fears you recognize in yourself, even if you're not a middle-aged white male. Amy Ryan makes a great concerned mom/former Bon Jovi groupie and newcomer Alex Shaffer, as the troubled teen, is not only a ringer for very young Sean Penn in almost every way, he's also a nationally ranked high school wrestler himself. So authenticity points for that.
Okay I Changed My Mind. I'm Going To Grump About It A Little: Director Tom McCarthy probably means well. But his sensibility is as tough as a basket of kittens. Over the course of three movies now (The Station Agent, The Visitor and this one) he's shown that he can create lovable characters and get you on their side, but he steadfastly refuses to push any of them into a too-dark corner for more than a few moments at a time. While this particular movie feels less arm-twisty on its road to happiness than The Visitor, he seems addicted, in general, to the feel-good ending, something that may please a specific kind of undemanding audience, but is really sort of a bummer in the long run. Who wants to be able to predict going in that pretty much everybody and everything is going to be alright by the time the credits roll?