A funny thing happened on the way to writing this review. Normally, I like to take a few hours between when I finish watching a movie and when I sit down to write the review. I do this to give myself a chance to digest what I’ve seen, and start to put my thoughts together. This time, however, by the time I was ready to start this review, I had completely forgotten what movie I’d watched. Now, normally if this would have happened, I just would have checked my Netflix or Amazon history, or the DVD or BluRay that would probably still be in the player. This time, however, the one thing I remembered distinctly was that I’d started the movie just around midnight on HBO Go, and that I’d picked it to watch today, because it was about to expire from the service. So, sure enough, when I went back to try to pull up my “last viewed” selection this morning, it wouldn’t show anything. Fortunately, as I was sitting there trying to piece the movie together based on the scraps of memory I was pulling together; (it was a comedy, but not really a COMEDY-comedy, sort of a dramatic indy comedy; it’s about a guy, and he has a kid, but it’s not really his kid,) and mulling over the possibility of trying to write a “review” today for a movie I couldn’t remember, something happened. The HBO menu which I still had on the screen rotated through an ad for Boardwalk Empire, which reminded me that Bobby Cannavale, who plays the thin-skinned psychopath/gangster Gyp Rosetti on that show, had also appeared in today’s movie… Win Win.
I think that’s actually a pretty good summary of the picture. It’s a fun little independent dramatic-comedy, with some interesting characters, and good performances by its solid cast, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it.
The film stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty a New Jersey attorney/husband/father/high school wrestling coach. While things seem to be going well for now in his personal life; he has a loving, strong and beautiful wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and two cute little daughters, (who aren’t very important to the plot). He has a couple close friends, Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), his assistant coach, and his best friend, and recent divorcee Terry Delfino (Cannavale). On the other hand, his wrestling team can’t win a match, and worse, his one-attorney legal practice is on the brink of financial failure. The fact that he hasn’t shared this last issue with his wife, does bode ill for his happy family life, but an opportunity presents itself in the person of his court-appointed client Leo Poplar (Burt Young). Leo is in the early stages of dementia, and, since his only daughter cannot be contacted, Mike has himself appointed as Leo’s legal guardian, because he wants the $1500 monthly stipend from Leo’s substantial estate. Of course, no sooner does Mike get Leo settled in a rest home, (contrary to what he indicated to the judge,) but a rebellious teenage boy played by Alex Shaffer shows up at Leo’s house informing Mike that he is Kyle, the son of Leo’s estranged daughter. Mike and Jackie agree to take Kyle in for a couple days, until he can go back home to Ohio. Of course, it turns out that not only is Kyle not interested in returning home to his addict mother, but he’s also a championship-caliber wrestler, so the Flaherty’s decide to let him stay with them, enroll him in school, let him join Mike’s wrestling team and from there we have a plot.
Unfortunately that plot is pretty familiar. It’s one part sports movie, and one part family drama, all wrapped up in a crunchy indy-movie shell. This isn’t to say that it’s bad, because it isn’t. After all, sometimes the predictable course is predictable because it’s also the right course. Having an original plot isn’t something this movie achieves, but then, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point. Instead this film’s strengths lie in interesting but realistic characters, and subtle acting performances that don’t feel like performances. There is no trace of the usual stable of quirky indy-comedy characters or overwrought dramatics.
Giamatti turns in a typically solid performance, creating, in Mike Flaherty, a character so perfectly normal that its easy to forget that he’s not a real person. He experiences stress, and makes decisions both good and bad the way real people do. It feels like Mike is just too tired and stressed out from everything on his plate to make a big fuss about whatever he’s doing next and in so doing, really grounds the picture. This contrasts nicely with Ryan’s turn as the far more expressive half of the Flaherty household, Jackie. Where Mike is burdened and even, Jackie is emotional and outspoken, and thus follows a greater emotional arc in far less screen time. Again, her performance is touched with notes of subtlety and realism. Jackie reacts emotional to situations, but it doesn’t seem like she’s making a performance of if it.
I also really liked Shaffer’s turn as Kyle. Kyle is the kind of character that could easily be off-putting at first, making it difficult to side with him later on, but Shaffer manages to make Kyle sullen, and monosyllabic without being unlikable. He’s damaged without being beyond redemption. Of course, in the absence of other evidence it’s hard to tell whether this is really acting, or just a case of a sullen but charismatic teenager playing a sullen but charismatic teenager.
In terms of the supporting cast; Burt Young really makes the most of his limited screen time as Leo. He is, in many ways he’s the most likable character in the film. Here’s an older man who’s only started to lose his mind, who just wants to stay in the house that he’s lived in most of his life, and go for walks in the park. He’s another example of an actor who substituted heavy emotion for a subtle and realistic performance. The same can be said for Cannavale’s Terry. Here’s a character dealing with a divorce, by further investing in his relationship with his friend, and re-engaging in an old interest, but he doesn’t SAY that this is what he’s doing, and doesn’t make a big deal about it, he just does it.
I suppose, the fact that I’m making this same observation about realistic performances from the whole cast means that I really should be giving credit to director Thomas McCarthy. He clearly set out and achieved this very distinct and realistic flavor to the movie. Unfortunately this distinct tone, also is a major contributor to the fact that this is the type of movie that doesn’t really stay with you. It’s such an utterly realistic portrayal of a not that out-of-the-ordinary series of events, that it lacks the kind of resonance that would make it memorable. The movie moves along nicely, (though I did get a bit bored for a few minutes in the middle,) and tells a neat little story with a beginning, middle, and end. I sat down, enjoyed the movie, then walked away with it having left virtually no impression on me whatsoever. I think that there’s a place for movies like this, but I’m not sure what that place is. It’s certainly not on my “must see” list, but as near as I can remember this movie, it was worth seeing.