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You Can Count Me  

Cast: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

"You Can Count on Me" is a movie about individuals struggling for answers at the outset and who still struggle for answers at the conclusion, yet we love them all the more for it.

Set in the small, fictitious Catskill town of Scottsville, New York (the real Scottsville sits just south of Rochester), the story centers around a hard-working single mom named Samantha Prescott (Laura Linney), who has a habit of mothering not only her eight year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin) but anyone for whom she holds a certain degree of sympathy. Orphaned at a young age when her parents were killed in an automobile accident, Sammy lives a very dedicated, meticulous life on the outside but seems to have problems sorting out the emotional debris swirling around on the inside. Her brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is the opposite. He leads a nomadic life, often marred by bouts of anger and the lack of a lucid life direction. When Terry comes home to borrow money, an unforseen circumstance forces him to stay longer than anticipated. Sammy and Terry's genuine familial love enables them to stay close despite the differing views and approaches to their own respective lives. Eventually, those differences put the relationship onto a very tenuous line, forcing each into the realization that the answers they seek are never easily obtained.

The film was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, a veteran writer who co-authored the screenplay for Harold Ramis' "Analyze This." He has created a gem of a movie, fairly simple in terms of plot but more complex with regards to observation of character. It's about people with complicated emotions but relatively simple answers to justify the circumstances in which they find themselves. As opposed to discovering solutions, the characters ultimately come to the conclusion that they simply don't have all the answers; a notion that can be both unsettling and peaceful at the same time.

The screenplay contains dialogue that is abundantly funny, unquestionably real, and subtly perceptive all at once. I liked the scene when Sammy and Terry first sit down to eat upon his arrival. She asks how he is, to which he evasively shrugs his shoulders. He asks how his nephew is doing. "We're fine." she replies in a manner that distinctively accentuates the period at the end of that sentence. We see from this exchange how the "roles" they've become accustomed to playing can interfere with their own ability to reach out; Sammy as the overprotective sibling, Terry as the shiftless little brother. I also enjoyed the exchanges between Sammy and her church's priest. Feeling a need to be chastised, Sammy confesses to him some of her sins, most notably the ongoing affair with her married boss. However, the priest isn't a judgmental man, but a very compassionate soul eager to help people through the most difficult times. "What's the church's position on infidelity these days?" Sammy inquires. "Shouldn't you tell me I'm a bad person who'll rot in the flames of hell for eternity or something?" He answers with a simple "well," a very humorous lilt in his voice. "Why do you think you're in the situation you're in?" he subsequently asks, his need to offer assistance greatly outweighing any need to judge.

This is Laura Linney's best role to date. Having appeared in several films including "Primal Fear", "Congo", and as Jim Carrey's phony television wife in "The Truman Show", she brilliantly plays up the humorous elements of Lonergan's dialogue while simultaneously conveying her character's unsettling insecurity building beneath the surface. Accomplished stage actor Mark Ruffalo is equally effective as an aimless soul who somehow remains consistently lovable. The interactions between Terry and his nephew are the most revealing, showing his inability to behave responsibly as a guardian. Terry's responses to the world around him are at times more juvenile than an eight year-old.

Unlike conventional storytelling, there doesn't exist a beginning, middle, and an end here. Instead, what eminates from the screen is a simple slice of life. The movie's best moment comes when Sammy and Terry share a moment on a lonely park bench. The traits that define them haven't changed much, but the realization strikes that the lives they'd perhaps hoped for will unfortunately continue to elude them. A sad notion, but familiar to anyone who has loved someone they didn't completely understand. While many films battle to gain the attention of the viewer, "You Can Count on Me" successfully taps into the deepest longings of the human condition.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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