You Can Count On Me

You Can Count On Me
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay:Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Laura Linney (Sammy), Mark Ruffalo (Terry), Matthew Broderick (Brian), RoryCulkin (Rudy), Jon Tenney (Bob), J. Smith-Cameron (Mabel), Gaby Hoffmann (Sheila)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA
You Can Count On Me Poster

Playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan's directorial debut, You Can Count OnMe, is a bittersweet drama about the affectionate, but strained relationship between twosiblings whose parents died in a car accident when they were children. No information isgiven on how they grew up, but 18 years later, the older sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), is asingle mother who still lives in her parents' house in the small upstate New York town ofScottsville, and the younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), is an aimless drifter, constantly inneed of money and always in trouble.

This could have easily turned into a simplistic good-bad scenario in which Terry is depictedas the troubled younger brother in need of salvation from his responsible older sister. And, insome ways, that is what the story is about. But, Lonergan is wise enough to realize that evenwould-be saviors more often than not have troubles of their own, and Sammy is no exception.Her heart is in the right place, but because she is human, she makes mistakes. She misjudgespeople, she makes snap judgments, and she tends to make the mistake of sleeping with mennot because she loves them, but because she feels sorry for them.

When the film begins, Terry decides to return home unexpectedly to visit Sammy and hereight-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). This is the first time brother and sister have seeneach other in two years, and Sammy is greatly excited, deluding herself that Terry is cominghome to see her not because he's in trouble or because he needs money, but because he wantsto see her. As it turns out, Terry is in some kind of trouble, but Longergan keeps the exactnature of his problems slightly vague because they are not the center of the narrative. Rather,it is the way in which he and Sammy deal with each other and each other's problems.

When Terry comes to visit, Sammy is caught between two men. The first is Bob (JonTenney), an amiable man whom she has dated off-and-on for several years. Bob surprises herwith a proposal for marriage, something Sammy is neither prepared for nor particularlyinterested in. At the same time, she has begun an ill-advised affair with her new, anal-retentivebank manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick). Her compromised position makes it somewhatdifficult for her to preach responsibility to Terry.

Some of the best scenes in You Can Count On Me are not between Sammy andTerry, but rather between Terry and Rudy, Sammy's young son. Rudy, who has never knownhis father--a man with whom Sammy wants nothing to do--immediately looks up to his uncle.He doesn't see a scruffy, ill-kept, chain-smoking failure. Rather, he sees an older male whoshares secrets with him, talks straight to him, and offers to take him fishing. Sammyobviously wants Terry and Rudy to get along, but it is like walking on glass because she isalways afraid that Terry will act irresponsibly and Rudy will be hurt as a result.

It is this tentative fear of everything breaking down that pervades much of You CanCount On Me. It is ultimately about people who love each other, but are often unable todeal with other. The effort is there, but Lonergan makes the point clear that effort doesn'talways end with neat results. His screenplay is well-written--he has a knack for writing gooddialogue and creating believable tension between the characters. He takes the dramatic scenesto a certain pitch without letting them go overboard into hysteria. It is his sly restraint thatmakes the film work.

Lonergan is aided greatly by solid performances from his leads, most of whom are steppingup to leading status after many years of supporting roles. Laura Linney, who played thephony wife in The Truman Show (1998), is excellent at conveying both the strengthand the vulnerability of Sammy, while Mark Ruffalo does a good job of portraying a troubledyoung man without making him insufferably flawed. Terry has problems, but underneath youget the sense that he is truly a decent person. Matthew Broderick serves mostly as comicrelief in his role as Brian the bank manager, although he does make the character interestingenough in his own right. Not to be overlooked is Rory Culkin, who turns in an effectiveperformance as Rudy--engaging without being kiddy cute.

You Can Count Me works well at conveying complex familial relations. It leaves theending open, suggesting that the kinds of problems raised by the plot are not easily solved,especially over such a short period of time. In his directorial debut, Lonergan proves to have asolid grasp of human relations, even if his filmmaking style is a bit dry and predictable. Still,this film shows definite promise in its nuanced look at mature sibling relations.

©2000, 2001 James Kendrick

You Can CountOn Me DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
SupplementsAudio commentary by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan
A Look Inside: Interviews with Kenneth Lonergan and stars LauraLinney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, and Rory Culkin
Original theatrical trailer
DistributorParamount Pictures

You Can Count On Me is presented inits original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an anamorphic transfer.The film has a very naturalistic look, meaning that there isn't much in theway of camera movement or unexpected angles and all the lighting appearsreal and does not call attention to itself. Overall, the transfer looks verygood, although the movie's relatively low budget is sometimes obvious in theimage quality, which includes a few nicks and scratches here and there, butnothing particularly distracting. The image is generally sharp and welldetailed; colors appear warm and flesh tones are natural.

Available in either Dolby Digital 5.1surround or 2.0 surround, the soundtrack works well with the material. AsYou Can Count On Me is largely dialogue-based, most of the soundtrackis centered on the front soundstage, with the surrounds used sparingly forambient background noise. The movie uses music minimally, but effectively,and when it does appear it fills the room nicely through the multiplechannels.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergancontributes the kind of screen-specific audio commentary one would expectfrom a playwright making his feature-film directorial debut. He talks agreat deal about the characters and the processes of writing and workingwith actors, and he also discusses the philosophical and religious issuesbrought up in the narrative. He is candid about his work as a director,citing his influences and noting what could have been done differently atcertain points and why he did what he did. All in all, it is an intriguingcommentary, especially for those who are more interested in the narrativeand literary aspects of filmmaking as opposed to the technicalnuts-and-bolts that dominate many audio commentaries.

Also included on the disc is the promotional piece A Look Inside, a12-minute segment of interviews with Lonergan and stars Laura Linney, MarkRuffalo, Matthew Broderick, and Rory Culkin. Given the 12-minute length,there is not much depth to this segment, although it is always of interestto hear actors talk about the characters they played and how they understoodthem.

Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is included in full-screen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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