It isn't hard to understand why Mike Flaherty, the small-town North Jersey lawyer at the heart of Win Win, volunteers to coach the high school wrestling team. Here are these kids, circling one another on a gymnasium mat, jumping in, twisting and grappling, grunting and slipping - a weird ballet of focus and ferocity, awkwardness and agility. It's intense, it's competitive, and it's bound by a system of strict rules and routines.
Kind of like Mike's life, and Mike's work.
And when Paul Giamatti, who plays Mike, slaps his new wrestling star across the face - a kind of go-get-'em slap that's at once ridiculously macho and ridiculously funny - we can see the passion in Mike's eyes.
And when he takes on a case, and succumbs to his own worst instincts, stepping onto ethically slippery terrain, we can see why he did it. And see the pain, and stress, and agita it causes. He made a dumb move, but we still feel for the guy.
Win Win comes from Tom McCarthy, the character actor and writer-director responsible for The Station Agent and The Visitor, two perfect little portraits of lonely souls finding connections in the world.
Win Win is something different: Mike is in a hectic, but lived-in and loving marriage with Jackie (the great Amy Ryan). They're well-known, and well-liked, around town. They have two young girls. And Mike has his best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale, the coffee-truck guy from The Station Agent), to commiserate with him.
But the same kind of keen, empathetic observations that made The Station Agent and The Visitor so illuminating are at play here, too. And Giamatti, rooting down to the soul of this stressed-out, struggling man, delivers a marvel of a performance - all the more so because we forget that he is performing.
Oh yeah, and there's this kid: Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer), a 16-year-old who has fled his messed-up mother in the Midwest and arrives in New Providence looking for his grandfather, who happens to be fading into senility, and also happens to be Mike's client.
Before you know it, Kyle has enrolled in the local high school, joined the wrestling team, and moved into the Flahertys' basement. Just what Mike and Jackie need: a sulky surrogate teenage son.
Except that Mike does need Kyle: He's a natural wrestler - a star, really. Suddenly, his gang of comically sad-sack wrestlers has a reason to believe - and maybe even the hope of winning a match or two. But will the bad decision Mike has made throw everything - his career, his marriage, even his dreams of a wrestling championship - into jeopardy?
Win Win doesn't quite hit the high notes of grace and revelation that The Station Agent and The Visitor achieved, but McCarthy and his able cast pull off a similar mix of humor and pathos, smiles and angst.
That's not an easy thing to do, even if they make it look that way.