Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil,
but those who counsel peace have joy.
For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 1 Peter 3:10-12
Lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) are raising their two children in the small town of New Providence, N.J. Life would be great for Mike, except that he has so few clients that he cannot even afford to fix the decrepit furnace making threatening noises throughout the film. Thus far he has kept from Jackie his fear of going broke.
The other occupant of the small office building is Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), with whom Mike moonlights as the high school wrestling coach, Mike himself having been a small but scrappy wrestler when he was a student. The team is probably the worst team in New Jersey, never having won a match.
Then comes the day when Mike sees an opportunity for what he thinks will be some easy money—it’s a move that lawyer Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer would readily approve. Mike has an elderly client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) who is in the early stages of dementia. At a court hearing, after it is certified that Leo’s daughter cannot be reached, Mike volunteers to become Leo’s trustee so that the old man will not become a ward of the state and sent to a retirement home. Mike tells the surprised judge that he will look in on his client as often as necessary. However, when they drive away from the courthouse, it is not the old man’s home, but the retirement home where the lawyer deposits his client. The fee for serving as trustee is $1500 a month, so Mike’s financial worries are over—or so he thinks.
One day when Mike drives up to Leo’s house to pick up some of Leo’s things he finds a teenaged boy sitting on the steps. It is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s sixteen year-old grandson from Ohio. The boy has left home because his junkie mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) has been in drug rehabilitation. At the retirement home Leo does not recognize the grandson because they have never met, but they get along well. Mike takes Kyle home with him. Jackie is less than thrilled at first, though as developments proceed, she comes around, bonding with the boy.
Now the film takes on the form of a sports story when Kyle accompanies Mike to wrestling practice and reveals that he is highly skilled at the sport. Although at first it looks as if Kyle will be staying for just a few days, the days stretch into weeks, so, enrolling the boy in school, Mike adds him to the team. To their opponents’ surprise, the team starts winning matches. However, when Kyle’s mother shows up wanting custody of Leo (so she can get her hands on her father’s money) and demanding that Kyle return with her to Ohio, it looks like everything will fall apart for Mike—especially when Kyle and Cindy learn that Mike has been paid for his trusteeship and has not fulfilled its terms by keeping Leo in his own home.
Director/screenwrite Thomas McCarthy gives us an intriguing look at a flawed man learning a lesson the hard way. I must also mention actor Bobby Cannavale who plays Mike’s best friend Terry, a Kook who wheedles his way to become a volunteer assistant coach, so enamored is he with Kyle’s wrestling prowess. (Cannavale played the talkative mobile diner operator in McCarthy’s wonderful The Station Agent.) Although Mike does not “plan evil,” in the words of Proverbs, his “lying tongue” does result in a situation that could cost him the trust of his wife and the ruination of his career. He will need all the grace available in a universe in which grace is central. With so many conflicting interests on the part of the characters, it will take a lot for the title to be justified.
May contain spoilers.
1. What is Mike’s situation at his office when we first meet him? How is his decision to take advantage of Leo’s situation understandable, though not excusable? Have you been in a tight situation in which you were tempted to take a short cut to extricate yourself? How is the rationale that it won’t hurt anyone and no one will know often used?
2. What do you think of Jackie? Her reluctance to take in Kyle? How does she change?
3. What kinds of pressure must Kyle have been under back in Ohio? How did he give in to it in one instance?
4. How does the film depart from the usual path of the sports genre and its “big game” climax?
5. How is the resolution of Mike’s troubles a matter of grace? Indeed, how is Jackie’s decision a gracious (though not totally disinterested) one? What do you think her future holds for her?
6. Judging by what we see Mike engaged in in the last scene, has his financial situation improved any? And yet, how has he become a better, and presumably, happier man?