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'Count on Me' Adds Up to Impressive Debut

With warm humor and perceptive writing, director Kenneth Lonergan displays a gift for creating realistic characters and a compelling story.

November 10, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Kenneth Lonergan knows what he's written and why he's written it. He hears the words behind his words, understands the states of mind they reflect. He sees into his characters, into how they have to be who they are though they hurt themselves in the process. Even his tiniest moments ring true, which is why the ruefully funny dramatic comedy "You Can Count on Me" is such an exceptional debut.

A double prizewinner at Sundance, sharing the Grand Jury Prize and taking the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, this beautifully textured film shocks us for all the right reasons, by creating inescapably real people and allowing them to be themselves. Always individuals, the characters Lonergan has written and directed are forever doing unexpected things for no good reason, faking us out time and again because they have minds of their own.

A rising New York playwright ("This Is Our Youth" is his best-known work), Lonergan has written for film before: His original script became the very different "Analyze This" nine years and 14 writers after he wrote the first draft. He turned to directing to ensure that "You Can Count on Me" would appear on screen just as he wanted it, and that has made a considerable difference.

Though there are romantic elements in it, what Lonergan has written is a different kind of love story, one between a sister and a brother. Orphaned at a young age, they are, at least in theory, each other's main support in the world, but what Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) can actually depend on from each other is something more complex and frustrating.

For Lonergan is especially good at making Sammy and Terry's oppositeness as clear as the affection they share. They love but disappoint each other; they're irked as often as they're caring. Chronically unable to provide what the other sibling is looking for, the only thing Sammy and Terry can truly count on is a mutual exasperation that looks to extend to the end of time.

Wonderfully played by Linney ("The Truman Show") in a performance that makes the most of Lonergan's incisive writing, Sammy is the sister who stayed home in a small town in upstate New York, tending her parents' grave, working as a lending officer at the local bank and having an off-and-on relationship with the square-jawed Bob (Jon Tenney).

The most reliable man in Sammy's life is the 8-year-old son she's raising as a single parent. Like many another serious child of divorce, Rudy (Rory Culkin, Macaulay's talented youngest brother) is a worrier with a somber sense of humor, a kid who likes things as structured as possible.

Having a special hold on Sammy's emotions is her brother Terry; when a rare letter from him arrives, her face lights up like the sun. And when Terry announces that he's coming back for an even rarer visit, not even the officiousness of her new boss at the bank (a deftly comic Matthew Broderick, a friend of Lonergan's since high school) can stop her fromthrowing herself into preparations.

As strong as Linney's superb performance is Mark Ruffalo's special work as Terry. A veteran of many of Lonergan's plays, his experience with the director's language and themes helps bring levels of complexity and interest to what could have been the most dismissible of characters. Slacker, layabout, underachiever--whichever word you choose, Terry fits it. But it is one of the triumphs of "You Can Count on Me" that his kind of rootless disaffection has rarely been so honestly, convincingly yet sympathetically portrayed.

"I am not the kind of guy everyone says I am," Terry whines to a girlfriend early on, but, truthfully, he pretty much is. Awkward and ill-at-ease with people, easily insulted and always aggrieved, he frustrates everyone he comes into contact with, himself most of all.

So as much as Sammy is looking forward to his visit, Terry's generic fecklessness inevitably brings out her disapproval, while he in turn feels cramped and smothered by her excessive concern. Complicating things is Terry's developing relationship with a dubious Rudy, who has never seen anyone like his uncle and is not sure he even wants to.

Because so much can be said about these characters--because, like those we know--they can be looked at from any number of angles, it's easy to forget to emphasize how completely funny "You Can Count on Me" is, how much its warm humor bubbles up naturally from the heart. Lonergan (who's cast himself as the overmatched local priest) makes both his perceptive writing and subtle direction, his ability to view ordinary life as a potentially great adventure, look much easier than it really is. If you've been looking for an American independent film that fulfills the promise of the movement, you have it now.

* MPAA rating: R, for language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: suitable for sophisticated older teenagers.

'You Can Count on Me'

Laura Linney: Sammy

Mark Ruffalo: Terry

Matthew Broderick: Brian

Jon Tenney: Bob

Rory Culkin: Rudy

A Paramount Classics, Hart Sharp Entertainment and Shooting Gallery presentation in association with Cappa Productions, released by Paramount Classics. Director Kenneth Lonergan. Producers John N. Hart, Jeffrey Sharp, Larry Meistrich, Barbara De Fina. Executive producers Martin Scorsese, Steve Carlis, Donald C. Carter, Morton Swinsky. Screenplay Kenneth Lonergan. Cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski. Editor Anne McCabe. Costumes Melissa Toth. Music Lesley Barber. Production design Michael Shaw. Art director Shawn Carroll. Set decorator Lydia Marks. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

In limited release.

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