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New Jersey-born Tom McCarthy is an actor you might remember from TV shows like "Boston Public" or as the overly ambitious newspaper reporter in the fifth season of "The Wire." But he's also the writer and director of two acclaimed features, "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor." His new film "Win-Win," is a feel-good comedy starring Paul Giamatti as a down-on-his-luck lawyer who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Few trajectories on film are as compelling as the journey from intense isolation to the embrace of a surrogate family - an arc that's Tom McCarthy's specialty. In his blessedly serene comedy "The Station Agent," the dwarf protagonist, played by Peter Dinklage, arrives in a small New Jersey town, silent and unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down - and then begins to attract a band of outcasts who warm up his world.

McCarthy's next film, "The Visitor," featured Richard Jenkins as an emotionally closed-down economics professor who's thrown together with a bunch of illegal immigrants - and lo, he comes out of his shell and creates a new family.

McCarthy's terrific new comedy, "Win-Win," opens, of course, with a lonely loser.

He's Mike Flaherty, played by Paul Giamatti at his most likeably schlubby, a suburban New Jersey attorney with two daughters - one an infant - who can't pay his bills and can't bring himself to tell the truth to his wife, Jackie, played by Amy Ryan. The first shot of him is from behind on a jogging path as he staggers to a halt and gets passed on either side by a pair of peppy runners. Moonlighting as a high-school wrestling coach, he watches his scrawny, hapless team lose match after match. Mike is a heavy, haunted man - a heart attack waiting to happen.

Then a way out presents itself. He can take $1,500 a month from a near-senile court-appointed client, Leo, played by Burt Young, under the pretense of acting as the old man's guardian. But now he's even more isolated. He's violated his professional and personal ethics. He is a lost soul.

Relief arrives in the guise of disaster. Leo's emotionally damaged grandson Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer, turns up at his grandfather's house - on the run from his druggie mom and her abusive boyfriend, and circumstances lead to his moving into the Flahertys' basement. At first, Mike's wife Jackie is scared of the kid, with his bleached hair and one black eye and eerily flat demeanor. But when she hears about his past, she gets riled.

(Soundbite of movie, "Win-Win")

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor): (as Mike Flaherty) We're not in the position to take care of another kid right now.

Ms. AMY RYAN (Actor): (as Jackie Flaherty) I don't care. I'm not sending him back there. I can't. And for the record, I'm not very happy about it.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Fine, then we don't have to do this.

Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) Yes we do, Mike. We do. Makes me so angry and so damn sad to see him in this situation. He's just a kid.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Yeah. I know. I know.

Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) I want to go to Ohio and beat the crap out of his mom.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Okay. Come on.

Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) No. I do. I want to beat the crap out of her and her stupid boyfriend.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) Okay.

Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) I'm serious.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (as Mike Flaherty) I know you are. I just I don't think that beating the crap out of everybody is the best solution. That's all.

(Soundbite of heavy sigh)

Ms. RYAN: (as Jackie Flaherty) It feels like it.

EDELSTEIN: What I love about that scene is how the edge in Ryan's voice seems to cut through all the fatty resonance in Giamatti's and goad him into action. They're a perfect screen couple. And "Win-Win" is a symphony of marvelous voices, including Shaffer's. In his acting debut, he has a stoner drone that suggests a kid whose emotions are pushed way down. As luck - and of course McCarthy's slickness - has it, Kyle turns out to be an accomplished high-school wrestler. As he joins Mike's team and turns the season around, we're blind-sided - as in "The Blind Side."

But like that other indie winner "Little Miss Sunshine," "Win-Win" is a go-for-it movie with all kinds of dissonant notes. That's what saves it from being cloying. Before Kyle wrestles, he insists that Mike give him a hard slap across the face to quote, "wake him up." It's funny, because Mike is such a gentle soul and can't believe what he's doing - and funnier when others on the team request a slapping, too. But the subtext is ghastly. It suggests that Kyle's wrestling talents are fueled by abuse. When his mother shows up, he leaps out windows to avoid her. Played by Melanie Lynskey - best known for her role opposite Kate Winslet in "Heavenly Creatures" - she has a breathy, seductive little voice with a touch of Marilyn Monroe but a beady eye on the main chance.

There's tension all through "Win-Win." We fear that Mike will get caught for his financial fraud, yet on some level we want him to be caught, to own up for his soul's sake and the sake of the family that now includes Kyle. Is a win-win scenario even possible? The title gives you a hint.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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DAVIES: Terry Gross returns Monday. I'm Dave Davies.

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