Sunday, July 23, 2006

You Can Count on Me (Lonergan, 2000)

A single, sudden moment early on in the life of two siblings leaves them adrift in a world where both meaning and morality are elusive. Although the event is only mentioned out loud briefly, it clearly follows the brother and sister like an enormous shadow long into adulthood, affecting the way they lead their lives and how they interact with each other. Sammy, played by Laura Linney, and Terry, played by Mark Ruffalo, have taken very different approaches to dealing with this irrevocable event. Sammy has remained in the small town where they grew up and lives in their childhood home raising her eight-year-old son on her own. She has worked several years at the local bank, a place where changing the color scheme of your computer monitor can be seen as an act of rebellion. Terry, on the other hand has opted for a more nomadic, more turbulent life style. He is involved with a highly unstable partner and has spent significant time in Alaska and Florida, opposite sides of the country. You Can Count on Me takes place during a brief visit by Terry which may or may not be the last time he sees his sister.

Although Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay certainly has its merits, this is a film that belongs to the actors, particularly Linney and Ruffalo. The fireworks fly early on in a tense restaurant scene in which Terry explains his long absence and Sammy expresses her disappointment without fear of decorum. Linney is perfectly cast as the sharp, but surprisingly impulsive single mother whose conservative veneer is really just a mask disguising a woman who is in a state of spiritual tumult. As good as she is, Ruffalo is even better as the slacker, Terry, who swears openly in front of Sammy’s child and whose idea of quality babysitting is involving the boy in a pool hustle at the local bar. Terry’s relationship with the boy is a bit reckless, but cannot be described as negligent. He has his own ideas about what is right for the boy and offers him jarring experiences whether Sammy likes it or not. For Terry, Ruffalo has selected a rhythm perfectly suited to Lonergan’s somewhat broadly drawn character that also gives him the feeling of a unique individual. There have been many characters similar to Terry in the movies before, but through Ruffalo, we are drawn into a specific struggle and journey. He is deeply affecting without ever being hammy. Bookending the scene at the restaurant is a wonderful scene late in the film where their situation is left painfully unresolved. Although it is never spoken out loud, the film’s title rings in our head as a powerful subtext. Perhaps the next thought might be “Can I Count on You?”

Matthew Broderick’s anal bank manager character is somewhat less successful. I enjoyed the way he communicated through a never-ending stream of post-it notes. I also liked the surprising direction his character arc takes and how it helps to add depth to how we understand Sammy. However, Broderick’s performance doesn’t really seem to match the film. Juxtaposed against the effortless naturalism of Linney and Ruffalo, Broderick too often comes across like two-dimensional comic relief. I never really bought him as a plausible human being with a life outside of a writer’s screenplay. Broderick has pulled off this kind of role before, in Alexander Payne’s Election. Unfortuantely, he is far less successful here, providing the film with an unwanted dose of ‘phony’. I also felt that Lonergan’s screenplay fluctuated between insightful and overwritten. In the end, he gets the job done, communicating his themes and providing a moving experience. However, there are several times where we are given far more words than we really need. Lonergan’s direction is technically uninspiring, although I suspect that it may have been worth granting him that position in order to get the specificity of the primary relationships just right.

When it comes right down to it, Lonergan has created a memorable experience with characters that we are glad to have known, despite all their faults. He has created a situation that has a satisfying amount of specificity, but is general enough to apply to those of us who will never experience these particulars. Perhaps best of all, he has given Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo a showcase for their extraordinary abilities and created characters that have allowed them to demonstrate the full range of their talents.



Post a Comment

<< Home