You Can Count on Me (VHS, 2002, Special Edition - Spanish Subtitled)

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A Heart-Wrenching, Soul-Rinsing Movie About Siblings

Mar 17, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Despite its oatmeal title, this is an extraordinary movie with blistering performances

Cons:A subplot about adultery stretches things a bit

The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a big-action, big-comedy movie, GO AWAY. If, however, you want an honest, realistic, smartly-written story of strained family ties, then WELCOME HOME.


If there’s another screenwriter who’s had a more wildly diverse year than Ken Lonergan, then I’ll eat my critic’s notebook. The two movies bearing his name—The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and You Can Count On Me in 2000 were as different as…well, as a moose and a squirrel. Rocky and Bullwinkle was dumb and dull; You Can Count On Me was smart and sharp (the script is so good, in fact, it’s been nominated for an Oscar—though I’m still pulling for my personal favorite, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous). It’s as if in the midst of all his literate output William Faulkner suddenly decided to write a potboiler called Zombies Ate My Parents or, conversely, Danielle Steel wrote The Sound and the Fury. I think Lonergan’s got more Faulkner than Bullwinkle in him, however.

In all fairness, Lonergan was most likely one of many hacks banging out the script for Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s the kind of movie where, I imagine, studios lock a group of otherwise talented writers into a padded room with strict orders not to emerge until they’ve got a script that will go down as smooth as oatmeal but taste like a Big Mac. On the walls, they’ve probably taped signs that read “Concept,” “Synchronicity” and “Happy Meal Toy.”

Lonergan also wrote the story for the equally blah Analyze This the year before, but somehow he’s managed to turn all those past best-forgotten movies into faded memories with You Can Count On Me, a gut-wrenchingly good story about a pair of siblings trying to connect with each other. Right now, Lonergan, a playwright by trade, is basking in the searing-hot spotlight of Hollywood as its favorite New Thing. It couldn’t happen to a smarter, more talented guy.

In addition to creating one of the most compelling scripts of this non-compelling movie year, Lonergan directed You Can Count On Me and has a medium-sized role as a downbeat priest. This is the kind of personal movie which feels like it had been stewing in his soul for quite some time. It’s a film which takes us deep inside its characters and when we get there we realize we already know these people—in fact, they may even be us. It’s an intimate movie which does all the right things at all the right moments with humor, tenderness and poignancy; and best of all, there’s no concept, synchronicity or a Happy Meal toy in sight.

Sammy (Laura Linney) is a single mom who works as a bank loan officer in the small upstate New York town where she grew up. She’s got a cute, nice kid (Rory Culkin) who seldom asks about his absent deadbeat dad, but is full of questions nonetheless. She’s got a new bank manager (Matthew Broderick) who’s shaping up to be the Boss From Hell, insisting that employees log their every minute of work and change their computer screens to more “conservative colors.” She’s got a boyfriend (Jon Tenney) who’s bland in a nice-guy kind of way but who couldn’t commit himself out of a paper bag.

Sammy’s also got a younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) who’s about as black a sheep as they come. He’s a ne’er-do-well who drifts aimlessly through life, looking at life with a heavy-lidded cynical gaze. Some of this inner restlessness and bitterness probably stems from the fact that his parents were killed in a tragic car crash when he and Sammy were still in grade school. Not much is shown of their childhood, but you get the feeling that Terry and Sammy grew up to be wary of the world and clung to each other for support. Sammy settled down, married a louse, had a kid, got divorced, found a steady but unfulfilling job at the local bank and settled into a routine of driving her son from school to the babysitter’s on a regimented work break. Everything in Sammy’s world is just-so, neatly tucked into a series of patterns which seldom vary from day to day. It’s probably not the life she would have picked, but it’s the one she’s resigned herself to.

Terry, on the other hand, is anything but settled. He’s drifted as far north as Alaska, then wandered back home again. He’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know just what it is and that makes him edgy and raw-tempered. Despite his scorn for his hometown (“It’s a dull, narrow town filled with dull, narrow people,” he says), he’s come back to see his sister, showing up one day on her doorstep with all his emotional baggage in hand.

At first, Sammy is overjoyed to see him (Lonergan cleverly shows us the depth of her feelings for her brother when we see she keeps a neatly-labeled file folder with all his correspondence in a desk drawer). Soon, however, Sammy realizes her brother is still a hopeless case and, despite her best efforts, she’s unable to fix Terry or help him find an anchor in life. “No one knows what to do with you,” she sighs. Terry nods, grins and says, “I know how they feel.”

These are real people…as opposed to the kinds of Hollywood fabrications we see populating the big screen all too often. Bringing Lonergan’s words to life are two of the best performances you’re likely to see all year. Both Linney and Ruffalo perfectly capture the raw essence of this brother and sister. Linney, of course, has been nominated for an Oscar and is the only serious threat to Julia Roberts’ almost-certain win. Linney has been one of those actresses who have given solid but unremarkable performances in mainstream movies (Primal Fear, Congo, The Truman Show), but with one role they quickly break away from the pack. This is Linney’s role. Her natural manner—a tight, clenched-jaw way of speaking—works to great effect with this character who comes off as pleasant to the rest of the world, while inside she’s crumbling. This is the kind of subtle, Oscar-worthy performance that stands up to repeat viewings.

Ruffalo has the flashier role of the two, but he never overdoes it. Like a dumb puppy who keeps running out into traffic, you feel a mixture of pity and exasperation for Terry. Just when you think you’ve had enough of his blistering, chain-smoking, impetuous character, he’ll turn around and reveal himself to be a tender father-figure in a scene where he plays a game of barroom pool with Sammy’s son. It is impossible to take your eyes off Ruffalo in the many moments he’s on screen. It’s a shame Oscar doesn’t give the nod to more young actors in independent films like this (for the record, Oscar also snubbed Michelle Rodriguez’ terrific performance in Girlfight).

The only part of You Can Count On Me that I found it hard to swallow was the subplot involving Sammy’s fling with her married boss. There’s a sudden shift in Broderick’s character from World’s Most Anal-Retentive Employer to Schmuck in the Sack after Sammy tumbles too quickly into his bed. But that’s only a slight damper on an otherwise perfect movie.

In the midst of a cinema season where audiences are buffeted by inanity—from bloated epics with special effects flash to three-word teen comedies (Bring It On, Get Over It, et al) to, yes, Rocky and Bullwinkle bombs—it’s nice to wander into a movie theater and find something real on the screen, something which holds a mirror up to our lives, something which will finally leave us emotionally wrenched and rinsed.


Recommend this product? Yes

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