‘Win Win’ has a winning cast

"Win Win" has been compared to "Little Miss Sunshine," but that's no reason not to see it.

And have no fear: There is no role for Alan Arkin as a kooky old man, no shooting-fish-in-a-barrel gags about beauty pageants, no teen with overscripted angst.

The only similarity I really see is that both are about families - the advantage for "Win Win" is that its family is plausible, its story moving and funny. And it did not make me throw up.

The tone of "Win Win" will be familiar to those who know the work of actor/sometime director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent," "The Visitor"), sometimes described as a humorist.

We see that tone at work in the early scenes of "Win Win," set in the low-rent law offices of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-town Jersey lawyer whose one-man family-law practice is suffering amid the recession.

He can't afford to have his toilet unstuck, his furnace fixed, and he's hiding from his wife (Amy Ryan) the fact that he's started to delay bill payments.

Mike's desperation leads to a moral misstep - at a mental-competency hearing, he agrees to be the guardian of an Alzheimer's-stricken client (Burt Young), so as to collect the $1,500 a month in estate fees.

This softens his cash-flow problem but creates others when the old man's estranged relatives start showing up - his drug-addicted daughter (Melanie Lynskey) and sullen grandson (Alex Shaffer).

For Giamatti's character, the boy's appearance is a curse and a blessing. It threatens to expose his fee scam, but the boy turns out to be a talented wrestler, and Mike, as it happens, is the local high-school wrestling coach.

Giamatti skillfully embodies the movie's central riddle, how decency and opportunism can coexist in the same man. Mike continues pocketing the old man's checks and hiding the crime from his wife, yet he works genuinely hard to help the young wrestler find his way at school, on the mat, in life.

The cast is first-rate. Ryan's character, oblivious to her husband's conflicts, is movingly dedicated to serving as the boy's de facto mother. His real mother has mistreated him horribly - we see that the boy's unresolved rage and desire for control are the tools that make him a phenomenal wrestler.

Giamatti, Ryan and Lynskey are fine, but the movie gets lucky with Shaffer, cast for his ability as a wrestler, but on-target, unaffected, though still very readable as a guarded, wary, damaged teen.

Win Win

Directed by Thomas McCarthy. With Jeffrey Tambor, Paul Giamatti, Melanie Lynskey, Amy Ryan, Todd Fredericks, Amy Landecker, Burt Young, Finise Avery, Margo Martindale, Bobby Cannavale. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 46 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language).