In the movies of writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent), characters from different worlds are thrown together, and they bump and jostle one another, but they also need one another, so they end up forming new kinds of families. Is that a humane vision, or is it the formula for a long-running sweet-and-sour sitcom? In McCarthy's work, it's often a bit of both, yet in Win Win he's a craftsman at the top of his patchwork-community game. The film is rooted in the economic distress that inspires Mike (Paul Giamatti), a husband and father with a faltering New Jersey law practice, to sign on as the guardian of a client (Burt Young) who is slipping into dementia.
Mike gets $1,500 a month for it, but he also gets more than he bargained for with the arrival of the client's grandson, Kyle, a moody kid with shaggy platinum hair who's like a secretly softhearted teenage Eminem. As Kyle, newcomer Alex Shaffer finds fresh colors in the old delinquent spectrum, and Giamatti, who's at his best, gives nervous scrambling an undertone of tenderness. Kyle is a champion wrestler, and when he joins the mediocre high school team Mike coaches, everything seems grand. But Win Win, it turns out, isn't a tale of facile victory. It's a movie about how loss makes everyone do things they'll both defend and regret. B+