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They're Counting On the Unpredictable

Actors who look nothing alike playing siblings who defy movie traditions? Yep, that was the plan.

November 05, 2000|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

Among the many things to marvel at in Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" is the fact that the two principals, a brother and sister played by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, look nothing alike. And nobody who has seen this movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and shared the grand jury prize and won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, has noticed. Nobody.

"We don't have the same vocal mannerisms, we don't have the same skin tone, we don't walk alike, we got nothing going," says Linney (blond hair, blue eyes). "It reaffirms to me to get the best people you can and the rest of it will be OK."

"You Can Count on Me," despite its awkwardly earnest title, is more than OK, primarily because the characters learn something about themselves, but not too much--certainly not enough to change in any profound way. The Sony Classics film, which opens Friday, is a welcome respite from the gooey uplift and market-tested psychology of most Hollywood fare.

"People have a revelation in their life, and then it takes them five years to implement, to change," says Ruffalo (dark hair, olive skin). "We might see the glimpses of the beginnings of a change in them, but it doesn't work like that, where people are like, 'I see the light.' "

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 6, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Film distributor--The distributor of the movie "You Can Count on Me" was misidentified in Sunday Calendar. Paramount Classics is the distributor.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 51 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Film distributor--The distributor of the movie "You Can Count on Me" was misidentified in a Nov. 5 Sunday Calender story. It is Paramount Classics.

The movie starts with a jolt: Ruffalo and Linney's characters (Terry and Sam) lose their parents in a car accident when they are young children. Years pass. Terry has grown up to be a drifter and returns to his hometown to borrow money from Sam, the responsible one, who works in a bank and is raising a son by herself. He ends up staying with her for a while, and they undergo a kind of role reversal: She loosens up, he takes a paternal interest in her kid. Then they revert back to type.

But an appealing aspect of the movie is that the role reversals are not out of character--and there is no type. It's funny and maybe even exhilarating when Sam has a fling with the new bank manager (Matthew Broderick) and smokes a joint, but somehow it's not surprising. Likewise, we see Terry seem to get a handle on his life, only to lose it again--repeatedly. Audiences expecting a typical character arc are in for a surprise.

"I just don't know anyone who's that predictable," says Lonergan, who wrote and directed the film. "I don't know anybody who doesn't shift around, depending on the circumstances. One thing that really interests me is how people are struggling with their own horrible characteristics and with the horrible characteristics of the people who are close in their lives.

"Mark said a nice thing about the characters in the movie. He said they work so hard to make such a marginal improvement, but that's what makes it lifelike."

"You Can Count on Me" is Lonergan's first film as a director (he's directed theater). He has been a highly praised playwright ("This Is Our Youth," "The Waverly Gallery") and a screenwriter with mixed success (the hit "Analyze This" and the flop "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"), and exudes a dry, nebbishy air--in the film, he plays a befuddled priest--but this is a bit misleading. His opinions are confident and acute, and he had the savvy to enlist Martin Scorsese as executive producer to protect the film from meddlesome studio suits.

Not surprisingly, these suits wanted a name actress for the female lead. Although Lonergan wanted Linney, he dutifully had other actresses read and then cast her anyway. They also had a problem with Ruffalo and Linney's obvious physical differences, but a table reading of the script revealed a chemistry between them that would surmount that.

*

The shoot itself was no picnic (or it was the sort of picnic plagued by sand and red ants). They shot in upstate New York for 28 days, often working 16- and 18-hour days. There was no place for the actors to go between shots, so they were housed in a former chicken coop. It was unbearably hot. The script, which Lonergan had been honing for two years, had 250 scenes, which is more like "Ben-Hur" than an independent movie. (This film, though, is less than two hours long.)

And then there was the issue of Lonergan's inexperience. It wasn't a problem for Ruffalo because they'd worked together before onstage--Ruffalo starred in Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth"--and had developed a kind of shorthand. It was a different story for Linney and Broderick (despite the fact that Broderick is a childhood friend of Lonergan's). Lonergan says he wasn't used to the time constraints on a film set and found it difficult to communicate what he wanted without being excessively specific.

"They didn't mistrust me, but I think they felt I was a little too micro-managerial," he says. "They were totally nice about it, and we didn't have any fights, but they were a little bit tenser in the early stages. I think they ended up very happy with their performances. At least I hope they are. They should be."

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