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21 02 2018

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Written by Sheila Seacroft   
03 06 2011

ImageDirected by Tom McCarthy

Director Tom McCarthy's previous two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, were hugely enjoyable and satisfying, humanist films looking at gentle sad loners going through the process of discovering what it's like to belong. You'd think he and leading man Paul Giamatti, portrayer extraordinaire of the slightly awkward, well-meaning, unsure nice guy, would be a match made in heaven. And to some extent it is. Giamatti, in his best role in years, is utterly beguiling as Mike Flaherty, and a delight to watch. The question is, should we let ourselves be beguiled?

Flaherty is a humble lawyer down on his luck. The briefs just aren't coming in, and he can't pay the bills. Temptation comes to this very nice guy to do a bad thing: he undertakes to look after Leo, an ageing client, and promptly puts him in a home, pocketing the fairly substantial attendance allowance so as to keep his family and business afloat. Sounds bad? Yes, but how soon you forget, when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a disaffected grandson of Leo's turns up, his mother being in rehab. Turns out he's a wow at high school wrestling, something we know little of here in the UK, which Mike coincidentally happens to coach, and in no time he's winning matches, and part of the Flaherty family. We've seen how good Giamatti is at enthusiastically thumping the canvas in Cinderella Man, and he's at it again, eyes bulging with encouragement, irresistible. The humour of this downbeat wrestling world and Kyle's gradual absorption into pleasant family life makes for good, warm family comedy, but when reformed (for now) mother Cindy ( Melanie Lynsky) turns up and finds out about Mike's scam, the merde hits the fan.

Pitch-perfect acting surrounds Giamatti's lovely nuanced portrait of a flawed, good man, especially from Amy Ryan as his wry, tell-it-like-it-is wife, and Bobby Canavale as his wealthy off-the-wall friend, a kind of (scarcely) grown up Joey Tribbiani. It's all so warm and enjoyable that you scarcely notice the stereotyping of the wheedly ex-druggy mother, who so conveniently conforms to that stereotype that in the end she's easily bought off. This allows Mike to escape retribution and redeem himself and everyone to live happily ever after, including Kyle, happy and pleasant in his new secure position of quasi adopted son, and Leo, who has the kind of lovable dementia not far removed from eccentricity that we'd all opt for if we had to, now back in his home. But it's an uncomfortable feeling that we've been automatically batting for Mike, forgetting his cold act, and then pleased to see the ‘bad mother' disappear out of everyone's lives. Win win for the likeable middle classes indeed.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 31 May 2011


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