***1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Rory Culkin, Matthew Broderick

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Writing credits: Kenneth Lonergan

USA Films * 110 minutes

Screened at: Paramus Picture Show, Paramus, NJ

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.

The 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 every Sunday.

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 again. Family 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.

YOU 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.

Mark Ruffalo's 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.

As 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."

Fine supporting 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.

Lonergan, 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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