In a season clogged with megaplex dreck
aimed at children and morons, I was privileged to catch a little gem of
a flick that's so real, so heartfelt, so beautifully wrought, that it
seems like a pearl hidden at the bottom of a stack of discarded Playstations.
The film is YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, the directorial debut of screenwriter
Kenneth Lonergan (who penned the screenplay for ANALYZE THIS). Nestled
inside its nondescript title is a vivid, perfectly-rendered character
study of people we've all known, and perhaps, even are.
unfailingly brittle Laura Linney is Sammy, a fiercely devoted single mother
who raises her son Rudy (Rory Culkin) in the very house in which she grew
up, in the small hamlet of Scottsville, New York, and in which she raised
her brother Terry after the tragic death of their parents in an automobile
accident. Sammy lives a well-ordered life, working in the local bank,
dating Bob (Jon Tenney) a stolid, if unexciting man, and attending church
Sammy is overjoyed when her ne'er-do-well
brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) writes that he's coming to visit, anticipating
the visit as a chance to bond with her beloved, if exasperating brother.
Terry, however, has a different agenda score some cash to pay for
his girlfriend's abortion in Worcester Massachusetts, then hit the road
bonds prove strong, however, and soon Rudy latches onto Terry as a surrogate
father, albeit an irresponsible one, who takes him to shoot pool in a
local bar and teaches him the finer points of home construction. Terry's
presence frees Sammy temporarily from the yoke of her responsibilities,
and as a result, she herself begins to make some questionable decisions,
including an ill-advised, loveless affair with her persnickety anal-retentive
boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick). For a while, the siblings seem to exchange
roles, until Terry, unsuited for even the responsibilities of the "cool
uncle," disappoints Rudy once too often. Sammy, now with her own life
complications, finds herself once again having to parent her brother as
well as her son.
CAN COUNT ON ME contains perhaps the best ensemble performances of the
year. Laura Linney, a tightly wound actress who combines the classic blond
beauty of a young Meryl Streep with an underlying rage that always looks
as if it could explode at any moment, is softer around the edges this
time around. As the prosecutor and Richard Gere's sometime lover in PRIMAL
FEAR, she was a living stereotype of the hard-bitten career woman. As
Jim Carrey's improbably perky TV wife in THE TRUMAN SHOW, she appeared
constantly on the verge of madness. Here, as a woman thrust into parenthood
at too young an age, Linney for the first time seems less explosive and
more overwhelmed by the forces that shape her life. Initially, Sammy seems
like just another fine, upright struggling single mom, but when the catalyst
that is Terry returns to her life, she too shows the cracks of having
been thrust into too much responsibility at too young an age. For all
that Terry is clearly a chronic screw-up, there is something in his very
rootlessness that she finds appealing, and her affair with her boss is
an unfortunate manifestation of her own desire to break free of the tightly
scripted life she leads. Linney's best scene involves her singing along
with her car radio to a country & western song, "I'm the Other Woman,"
cackling with as much self-loathing as amusement.
richly nuanced performance as Terry is without doubt the breakout performance
of the year. Ruffalo (COMMITTED, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL), a respected stage
actor whose limited film work has been small roles as sneering thugs,
is nothing short of astonishing. Handsome in a surly, heavy-featured,
Brando-by-way-of-Chazz Palmintieri sort of way, he conveys Terry's rootlessness
and irresponsibility as a function of unresolved grief over the death
of his parents in an automobile accident years before, and a deep-seated
sense of loss. Characters like Terry are usually portrayed as charming
rogues or as sad-sack losers. It's clear that Terry is both, and Ruffalo
inhabits the character, slouched over with the weight of accumulated disappointment,
sneering with feigned disdain for the small town, and for the sister he
both resents and misses terribly. Terry is clearly brighter than his fecklessness
would indicate, but is just unable to stop for very long, for fear of
confronting his demons. You've known guys like this; I've known guys like
this. Maybe you married one of these guys. Maybe you are
one of these guys. Sometimes they shape up and become network engineers;
other times they end up dead before they're thirty-five. And when you
leave the theatre, you'll find yourself hoping, if not optimistic, that
Terry may end up as the former.
Sammy's son Rudy, Rory Culkin (yes, one of THOSE Culkins) shows none of
the mugging of his tabloid-fodder eldest sibling at the same age. The
Culkin clan clearly saved the best for last, as young Rory shows just
the right amount of smartass, combined with genuine pathos, as a boy who
doesn't know his father, and instead concocts a near-superhero fantasy.
When Terry comes along, Rudy is first reticent at having to share his
mother's affections, but soon latches onto this unlikely surrogate.
Culkin and Ruffalo play perfectly off
each other. A scene in which Terry takes Rudy to the local watering hole
to hustle pool is priceless, capped off with a nearly five-minute shot
in which neither one speaks as they watch their opponents play
a moment of male bonding not requiring Budweiser. When Terry asks Rudy
why he likes it in Scottsville, the boy is able to reduce his feelings
to Zen-like clarity: "My friends are here, I like the scenery...I dunno."
On the other hand, the always-yearning-but-not-knowing-what-for Terry
soliloquizes, "It's a dull, narrow town full of dull, narrow people. They
don't know anything except what things are like right around here. They
have no perspective, no scope." Rudy's response to this rant is, "What
are you talking about?" and Terry at least has enough self-knowledge to
say, "I have no idea."
performances perfectly showcase the talents of the film's lead cast. Jon
Tenney as Bob, Sammy's sometime suitor is as emotionally suppressed as
Ruffalo's Terry is expressive. A scene in which Bob proposes, the inevitable
ring shielded from the audience's view by a wine bottle that appears to
be a brick wall between a couple always with the wrong timing for each
other, embodies the separateness of these two people. Matthew Broderick,
repeating his ELECTION turn as a sleazebag married guy cheating on his
wife, injects a note of not entirely appropriate levity into the proceedings,
as a man who insists that the employees at the bank he manages not use
bright color settings on their monitors. Director Ken Lonergan makes a
brief, but important appearance as a New-Agey, relativist priest who refuses
to provide the admonitions of hellfire and brimstone Sammy seems to require
in order to keep her life on the straight and narrow.
author of a number of acclaimed plays, has provided in this script some
of the most vivid, true-to-life characters we've seen this year. A dry
wit permeates the dialogue, and if the end of the film seems unresolved,
well, then, so does life much of the time. This is not a high production
value film, though the Catskills scenery is spectacular, and the depiction
of Scottsville and of Sammy's pleasantly-furnished house
as a place where time has stood still is near-perfect. Set off by Lesley
Barber's classical score that is at times oddly reminiscent of Adrian
Johnston's work in JUDE, the overall effect is of placidity, one that
makes the foibles of these characters stand out even further.
Mercifully, Lonergan refrains from wrapping
up all the loose ends in this film. Just as in real life, he leaves us
with more questions than answers.
The only thing that is without question is this small, quiet, seemingly
ordinary film about ordinary people, is something truly extraordinary.
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