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YOU CAN COUNT ON ME

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin
Director:  Kenneth Lonegran
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Director’s Commentary, Featurette, Trailer
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  June 26, 2001

“I’ve told her the best way she can help you is by the way she lives her life.  She can be a role model for you…That doesn’t mean she has to be a saint, if that’s why you’re smiling.”

“I didn’t realize I was smiling.”

Film ****

I’m developing a theory that a restaurant scene is a good litmus test for the validity of a drama.  If a restaurant scene features two people ranting and raving in front of total strangers, behaving like nobody in their right mind would ever behave in public just because the director or the writer thought it would be funny or powerful, chances are, it’s not so great a film.  If there’s real connection, real history, real feeling between two people at a dinner table, even though emotions might elevate to a nominally embarrassing level, the scene will play without any wince factor, and the likelihood is, the film that surrounds it is a great one.

You Can Count on Me has such a restaurant scene, and it’s only one of a number of genuine jewels in this beautifully honest and smart drama from writer/director Kenneth Lonegran.  This scene, between siblings Sammy (Linney) and Terry (Ruffalo) actually began as a play by Lonegran, which he later developed into a full screenplay simply because he loved the characters.

I loved the characters, too.  Sammy and Terry were, in a sense, abandoned as children when their parents were killed in an auto accident.  We don’t know what their life was like between then and now; but we can guess.  The film has many secrets, and kudos to Lonegran and his sense of restraint:  many writers would feel the need to explain everything.  Lonegran trusts his audience to fill in the pieces with our own minds and experiences where necessary.

Sammy grew up in and still lives in their parents’ home in a small town in New York State, living a conservative life as a divorced mother of an eight year old son, Rudy (Culkin) and working in a small bank.   Terry, on the other hand, has lived as a tumbleweed, moving from place to place, sometimes getting into trouble and not always getting himself back out of it all the way.  When he shares the scene in the restaurant with his sister, it’s the first real meeting between them in a long time.  She’s so happy to see him that she dresses up, cleans the house, and prepares an awesome dinner for him.  The reckless Terry, however, is really only in town to borrow some money.

It’s not that he doesn’t love Sammy…it’s very clear that he does…it’s just that his life is so disorganized that despite his likeability, he doesn’t seem to be able to be much good to himself or anybody else.  When he begins a relationship with Rudy, it’s awkward at first, and doesn’t always go the way it should, but it sort of works because each one seems to fill a void in the other’s life.  Situations arise, some funny, some tragic, because Terry is really not much more mature than Rudy.  He has no business, for example, taking the kid out after hours to hustle pool.  We know that; but he doesn’t, really.  Yet for as bad as it looks on the surface, there’s something good about it, too.  Rudy is getting something with Terry something he’d never had:  a father figure.  Whether or not the figure is completely ideal is not an issue.

The film explores these relationships honestly and beautifully…there is much more depth in any given scene than simply the broad strokes it seems to be painted with.  It never hints at melodrama; when the sadder moments come, they play truthfully.  In fact, sometimes they come without warning, as they do in life.  It never rips at the heartstrings, but tugs on them gently and in such a way that you begin to feel the emotion even before you’re conscious of it.

There is an unforgettable moment when Terry takes Rudy to see the father he’s never met.  Rudy, in school writing assignments, had imagined his father as a secret agent or something glamorous.  Sammy has struggled with the problem of whether it would be better to tell her son the truth about his father or to let him go on thinking what he wants to think for a little while longer.  Terry doesn’t think.  The scene plays out like you might expect, and it leads Sammy to a hard, heartbreaking decision.  She loves her brother and her son both as much as anyone can love another person, but she begins to believe she can’t help them both.  She has to make a choice.

What I truly loved about the film is the fact that Lonegran finds real beauty and value in the simplest of scenes, but he doesn’t milk them.  Instead, he coaxes them to the surface gently.  And best of all, he doesn’t feel the insatiable need to resolve, resolve, resolve.  Most of the scenes have no resolution before they proceed into the next one, much like life.  I really applaud his work as a writer and a director, and for having the courage to resist the temptation to tie up one neat, tidy package after another.

The cast is incredible, starting with Laura Linney in a role that earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.  Sammy is just the right mix of honesty and moral uncertainty, of sadness and humor, of love and anger, and of strength and indecision.  In other words, one of the most real and genuine characters of recent memory.  Also excellent is Mark Ruffalo as Terry, a character that earns our love despite his problems, flaws and weaknesses.  And special mention must go to young Rory Culkin as Rudy, who delivers one of the best child performances I’ve seen in a long time.

I haven’t even mentioned Matthew Broderick as Brian, Sammy’s new rigid and tactless boss, who adds a whole other dimension of complication to her life:  at first, with his professional pettiness and nitpicking, but later, when they awkwardly end up as lovers.

To conclude, I should mention that the final scene between Sammy and Terry is one of the most touching and well-constructed I can remember.  It plays with such emotional honesty that it feels like the actors are working without a script.  And, like the rest of the movie, it doesn’t resolve or ring out with a sense of finality.  These are very real lives, and as such, the transitions are continual…one chapter closes, another opens.  The possibilities are hinted at, if not defined…and just the fact that they exist at all give the picture just the right sense of cautious optimism to end on.

Video ***1/2

This is a good anamorphic offering from Paramount overall, with just a couple of minor flaws worth noting.  Coloring is very good throughout; though not a cinematographer’s dream film, there are plenty of instances where detail, shading and tone are key, and this transfer renders them all well, with no bleeding and no distortion.  One or two darker scenes soften up a little bit, and some of the deeper blacks lose their definition from time to time in them…not distracting, but worth noting. 

Audio ***

Being a dialogue oriented film, I didn’t expect much out of the 5.1 mix, but I got a little more than I bargained for.   One key sequence made use of the rear stage to suggest a distant storm, with discreet rumblings that actually had me looking over my shoulder.  Apart from that, dynamic range and clarity are both defined by the intensity of the spoken word for the most part, and as such, there are no complaints with this offering.

Features ***

The disc contains a nice commentary track from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who is a quiet but informative and thoughtful speaker…he offers insights into the writing of the script, working with his superb cast, and more.  There is also a short collection of interviews with Lonergan and the key cast members, plus a trailer.

Summary:

Perhaps the film subtly suggests that an even greater expression of love than the traditional three-word offering is this five-word one instead:  You Can Count on Me.  It’s a wonderful movie about love in all its glory and frustration, joy and sorrow.  With a brilliant Oscar-nominated script and a superb cast, this is a picture that deserves to find an even broader audience with this DVD release.  Highly recommended.