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One Day With An Oscar Underdog's Pep Squad

It's a Fine Performance, and Her Publicity Team Is All Fired Up. But Can Laura Linney Stand Up to the Julia Juggernaut?

March 25, 2001|PAMM HIGGINS | Pamm Higgins is a former senior editor of the magazine

The day before being transformed from actress into Best Actress Nominee, Laura Linney hops a plane for New York. Behind her lie the winter-drab hills surrounding the Pennsylvania location of her latest job, a part as a small-town cop in a Richard Gere film called "The Mothman Prophecies." In front of her: home, the Announcement and the sick magic of fame.

The Announcement comes as anticipated, around 5:30 a.m. PST. Linney's booster club out in L.A.--or, rather, the team Paramount Classics pays to boost her--would burn Julia "the shoo-in" Roberts in effigy if they weren't all glued to the TV, snarling at the news of Miramax's masterfully hyped "Chocolat" as a Best Picture pick.

These staffers, who will go unnamed here out of respect for their all-for-one "We're a Team!" motto (and because, really, who cares?) had crossed the lot's rain-shiny blacktop before dawn to tether themselves to their telephones for the media onslaught. At 9:15, the Team, numbering at least 10 now, files past underfurnished offices and framed posters touting "The Virgin Suicides," "Sunshine," "The Gift" and other, less-watchable Paramount Classics films into a paneled conference room. It's Linney's first time as a nominee. It's Paramount Classics' first time handling nominations--its first chance to see what happens when you give a months-old film, "You Can Count on Me," a big kick in the pants.

"Congratulations, everyone," says David Dinerstein, the Suit at the head of the table. "Our ability to get Laura on the TV shows she hasn't done will help bring it to a much greater audience. And what we know is, people who see it love to talk about it."

The Team briefs Dinerstein on the status of Linney's interviews and bookings, the mailing to Screen Actors Guild members, the new print and TV ads, the posters, the possible billboard. The offensive push will target the affluent tastemakers of America (readers of the New York Times, watchers of Bravo) but also includes theater bookings in spots where the distributor had until now feared to tread: South Bend, Anchorage, Key West. After a few more inspiring words that amount to Go, Fight, Win, everybody scatters.

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"YOU CAN COUNT ON ME" CENTERS ON THE ADULT LIVES OF ORPHANS. Sammy (Linney) is a past-30 woman raising a son alone and trying to keep her brother from drifting out of her life. She adores Terry (Mark Ruffalo), needs him to feel whole and is deeply conflicted over how to react when he screws up. (Is shouting "You Suck!" too strong?) The real troublemaker in this film, though, is restlessness. It tosses Terry around the country before, broke, he returns to the small town in rural New York where he grew up. Sammy sticks to her job at the bank and to the house bequeathed by her parents, but she wanders off on the men who want her. Together under the same roof, she and Terry struggle just to deal: with the everyday-ness of life, with each other's limitations, with the tender soul of a serious little boy. More than once, the camera isolates the steeple of Sammy's church, a hint that some things--some people--stay put.

To validate Laura Linney and "You Can Count on Me" was to validate the good taste and open hearts of Dinerstein and Ruth Vitale, who took in the 2000 Sundance winner that no one else wanted. In fact, the businesspeople close to the film speak of it in the kumbaya tone of social workers promoting for adoption a kid with an attachment disorder. It's a special-needs case, they say in a near-whisper, a parenting "challenge"--this being a euphemism for "nightmare."

"You Can Count on Me" wasn't wet-nursed by a studio, which almost excuses the warm-fuzzy name, a "Kick Me" sign in the mono-monikered world of "Gladiator" and "Traffic." Far worse, it doesn't look like anything else in the family. Is it a feel-good film? A spinach (good for you) movie? A comedy? A psych-drama? A star vehicle like "Erin Brockovich"? Answer: None of the above.

It's a dialogue-driven script delivered by widely unknown actors so far out of the Hollywood loop that they get sheepish in the face of compliments. Take away the characters' sharp words, tepid sex, smoked joints and trailer-trash brawl, and the film would crown a Focus on the Family Top 10 List. But largely because of all that it is not, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's ruefully funny love child crawls into your lap and melts there. It has engendered heaps of word-of-mouth affection and awards galore from critics who recognize it as a glowing credit to the independent film movement. The people who have slammed it as a vessel for the patronizing idea that the Common Life is a hallowed thing wear a cynic's scarlet C.

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