Win Win


Win Win

This could be a poster for the generational gap

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Thomas McCarthy

 

We sometimes find ourselves at an ethical crossroads and find ourselves pushing the line out a little bit in order to make things work. Those kinds of boundary pushing have consequences, albeit sometimes unintended ones.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a genuinely good man who is enduring an especially rough patch. His elder law practice is crashing and burning and the financial fall-out from that is severe, leading to anxiety attacks while out jogging with his best friend Terry Delfino (Cannavale). Mike is the coach of the local high school wrestling team and a more woeful bunch of athletes you are unlikely to meet; their season is going down in flames and although Mike is a decent coach, the writing is most definitely on the wall. Of course, his assistants are Delfino and Stephen Vigman (Tambor) who is a CPA who shares the dilapidated office building with Mike which should tell you something about his good-guy-making-bad-decisions persona.

Mike is representing Leo Poplar (Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The state wants to put him in a care facility but Leo wants to stay home. Mike discovers that Leo’s living will allows for a guardian in the event that Leo becomes unable to make decisions on his own and that the guardianship will pay $1500 a month to cover expenses. Mike petitions the judge (Wilkins) to allow him to be Leo’s guardian since they’ve been unable to locate Leo’s daughter. The judge allows this and Mike then turns Leo over to the facility anyway so he can pocket the expense money which will keep him somewhat solvent.

Then Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is Leo’s grandson and came to town hoping Leo could put him up. Mike, feeling a little guilty, takes Kyle in which Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) whole-heartedly supports. It turns out that Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Lynskey) is in rehab, a drug addict who has been an unreliable caregiver. This sets Jackie’s dander up, but what floats Mike’s boat is that Kyle is also an Ohio wrestling state champion. Mike arranges for Kyle to be enrolled in his high school and adds Kyle to his team, instantly turning the program around. Seems to be a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong. Cindy shows up and she wants to take Kyle back to Ohio. Worse still, she wants guardianship of her father, not so much the responsibility (which she would be unlikely to be able to handle anyway) but the money that goes with it. Of course this turns everything upside-down; Kyle is happy being part of a stable family and he mistrusts and despises his mother but he also wants Leo out of the facility and back in his home where he belongs. Mike’s web is quickly unraveling.

McCarthy has previously directed The Station Agent and The Visitor which are both very fine films, and you can add this to his filmography of movies that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The characters aren’t indie film archetypes who appear in movie after movie; they are people with their own unique set of characteristics and who behave realistically in realistic situations. Most of us will relate to Mike’s financial predicament because most of us have been there or are there now.

Giamatti is one of those actors who almost always gives a terrific performance and along with his work in Barney’s Version of late seems to be at the top of his game, impressive at every turn. He’s become one of my favorite actors, one who can get my butt into a theater seat just because he’s in the movie. He makes Mike not just an everyman, but a believable one; a basically decent man pushed to the wall to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good ones but expedient ones. I think we all have done that at least once in our lives.

Ryan is also wonderful, playing Jackie as equally good-hearted and supportive but strong – she takes no crap but at the same time her heart goes out to a boy who has had a rough go. She’s like a she-bear whose cubs are threatened when her family – which includes Kyle – is threatened and why Mike leaves her in the dark about what’s really going on is understandable in that he wants to spare her the anxiety he is feeling, but also not in that his wife would be a solid rock. Ryan makes you wish you had a wife like her if you don’t have one, and if you do have one, count your blessings.

Shaffer has been receiving a lot of attention with his performance and for good reason. He is a natural and has great screen presence. You’d never know this was his first feature film, so natural is he before the camera. Like any first-timer there are some rough patches but this kid has some amazing potential and if he chooses to go this road, he certainly is going to be someone to keep an eye on.

The ending was a bit sitcom-ish for my tastes but that’s really one of the few bumps in the road that this movie takes us on. There are some wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Tambor, Young and Cannavale as well as Lynskey who has a pretty thankless role but does it well.

McCarthy is developing an impressive library of movies with his name on them and is a director that is rapidly becoming one who I’ll go out of my way to see sight unseen. He certainly has made another film here that is one of those quiet gems that you don’t hear much about but turns out to be well worth checking out. This is one worth finding at your local video or streaming emporium.

WHY RENT THIS: Giamatti and Ryan are terrific with some good support performances. A sweet film that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard choices. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit formulaic in the ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language gets pretty rough in places and there are some allusions to drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Shaffer’s feature film debut; he was a New Jersey State wrestling champion in 2010 as a sophomore in high school but his wrestling career came to a close when he broke an L-5 vertebra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD edition has a music video from The National for their closing credits song “Think You Can Wait.” The Blu-Ray edition adds a Sundance tour by actor David Thompson and a brief interview of McCarthy and Giamatti, also from Sundance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.8M on an unreported production budget; it is likely that the movie made a good chunk of change relatively speaking.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma