Tom McCarthy must be several people. He's a multi-talented actor/screenwriter/director recognized for his performance as dishonest Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton on HBO's "The Wire," his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Pixar's "Up," and his features "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor," which won Independent Spirit Awards and made character players Peter Dinklage and Richard Jenkins into leading men.

McCarthy's latest, "Win Win," stars Paul Giamatti as a small-time elder-law attorney and part-time wrestling coach who keeps his beleaguered practice afloat by unethically assuming guardianship of a dotty client. He then finds himself responsible for the man's runaway teenage grandson, an unlikely dynamo on the mat. Life lessons about winning, tactics and character flow in unexpected directions. "Win Win" is a sports movie where the triumphant moment isn't a slow-mo victory as the clock ticks down, but three kids quietly playing croquet.

While visiting the Twin Cities to promote his film, McCarthy said the sports comedy was inspired by -- of all things -- the economic meltdown.

"It wasn't, 'Oh, it would be fun to make a wrestling movie,' or 'It would be fun to make it in my hometown'" of New Providence, N.J., a bedroom community for Wall Street executives. "It was finances." Giamatti's character finds himself struggling to maintain a middle-class life for his wife and young daughters as business dries up. In that, McCarthy said, he's something of an everyman.

Nice neighbor in jail

"This is his American Dream. It's just not working now. He can't sustain it. The film is less about the market and its immediate effects than the decisions we make moving forward."

While writing the film McCarthy looked to the example of his onetime neighbor Andrew Fastow, former CFO of Enron, now serving a six-year sentence for securities fraud. The Fastows were nice, regular folks, he said.

"Pretty decent people make bad choices because of tough times or ego or greed or whatever. How you reconcile that is interesting to me, when a person who does a bad thing isn't a bad guy." We're all seduced by win-win propositions, he said, "the buy now, pay later, everybody-qualifies-for-a-mortgage scenarios that turned out to be a bad deal."

Because most Americans consider themselves morally upstanding, he said, they couch morally murky decisions in terms of doing what's best for their dependents.

"A lot of people put it in terms of, 'I've got a family to protect.' But that doesn't give someone the right to do the wrong thing. Hey, we still have to remember those people in society who need help and aren't our family. That idea that if you go to church and have kids, you're allowed to provide for them by any means necessary; I don't believe in that."

Sociological subtext aside, "Win Win" is feel-good popular entertainment that ends on a note of victory for every major character.

"My job's primarily to entertain and hopefully let us see a little bit of ourselves in this movie. Things aren't going to get easier for a long time. It's going to be a struggle. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of the middle class, we're going to be challenged to redefine ourselves, to confront our expectations of where we thought we ought to be. But that's OK.

"Once we remove that pressure from ourselves, we realize that in most cases, what we have is more valuable than what we think we should have."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186