Paul Giamatti stars in this down to earth tale of an everyman pushed into doing something he knows he shouldn't, and then scrambling like heck to stay above water when the deal becomes believably complicated.
Believable is the operative word here - from the very first frame this film has a tone and feel that is so very "normal" and, yes, believable. Virtually every character does more than just inhabit the film; they are flesh and blood, with their own issues and foibles, but it is Giamatti who once again holds the center with his amazing ability to play characters who are "just like us".
As the film begins we see Giamatti jogging along an idyllic forested path. He's doing ok, right? But then a younger pair of joggers blow by him and he stops his jog - as if admitting defeat. A beautiful and symbolic way of introducing the character. This scene is followed by a view of a window with one of those stick on stain glass angels. As the camera pans in the angel falls to the ground, echoing the sentiment that all is not so rosy for Giamatti. There's a wonderful tag to the scene in which Giamatti's young daughter enters the picture, sees that the angel has fallen, goes to pick it off the floor and sees that the center piece of glass (yellow, which echoes the yellow hoody that Giamatti is wearing in the first scene), has fallen out. Her response to this is a simple, poignant and funny "oh shit".
From here we move on to find that Giamatti's law practice is failing and he doesn't know how to generate more income. An opportunity comes along that will allow him to stay afloat, but is in a kind of grey area legally, and is certainly crossing the line ethically. When Giamatti decides to go down that slippery slope he sets in motion a chain reaction of events (all of which are totally plausible) that make this human dramedy work like a well oiled machine.
Taken at face value, one might easily dismiss the film as some overly sentimental tripe, but McCarthy directs this almost to perfection so you never feel the well worn aspects or start to doubt the believability of what is being presented. Of course McCarthy has a stellar cast to help him along the way. From the wonderful portrayal of the good wife by Amy Ryan, to the somewhat goofy, yet acceptable with a wry inner smile performance of Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti's friend and confident, you feel that these people are real - that you know them, or someone very like them.
Add a couple of very nice cameo's by Jeffrey Tambor and Margo Martindale and you have a film that tells a story, yet is more telling about life and values. There is a subplot concerning high school wrestling, but that is a mere underpinning for exploring other things. Alex Shaffer is the focus and motivator of much of the action in and around the wrestling mat, and while he comes off somewhat wooden, it is exactly what a 16 year old with no parental structure would probably be like.
In the end, it is the humanity and gentle humor that set this film apart from so many lesser efforts - it somehow found its voice and style, and expertly maintains it thanks to McCarthy's sure handed direction.
In closing, I'd like to add another juicy bit of the film's humor: there's a young boy on the wrestling team who is a star wars junky. When he finally gets his chance to perform on the mat he is paired against a guy who wears a black protective device over his face - the kid immediately starts to tear off his jersey, complaining that he'll have no chance against Darth Vader.