Film Review from the Film Gang

December 15th, 2000 - Bill Nichols reviews You Can Count On Me

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME continues its run at the Nickelodeon.  It one of those movies that we measure by their co-efficient of reality rather than by their co-efficient of conventionality.  That is, most Hollywood films obey the basic conventions of the genre film.  We go expecting to find the conventions fulfilled, be it the scary scenes of a horror film, the dangers of technology in the sci-fi film, or the big dramatic climaxes of the melodrama.  What matters is less their fidelity to everyday life as we know it than the interesting ways in which conventions get tweaked and modified by each new film. 

YOU CAN COUNT OF ME is the other sort of movie, where we go expecting to find a credible representation of life as we know it, life without the scares, technology, or grand drama.  We measure these films by how insightfully they put before us problems and issues that have a sense of authenticity about them.  We don't have to be Navy Seals or presidential candidates or players in a horror story to recognize the difficulties of a single mom, the frustrations of the misunderstood, or the endless failures of the town looser. 

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME presents its portrait of everyday life in a small upstate New York community where everyone knows the local cop and no one is happy.  Sammy, Laura Linney, is the single-mom sister and Terry, Mark Ruffalo, is the loser brother who pops into town for a quick loan to help out a pregnant girlfriend.  Sammy is the ultra-responsible, mothering one; Terry is the nee'r do well.  Sammy puts down roots; Terry can't stay still.  Sammy works in a bank; Terry does time in jail.  These are siblings with issues: Sammy wants to reform Terry and Terry wants to knock Sammy off her high horse.  The issues between them get played out around Sammy's eight year son whom Terry befriends but in ways that betray his lack of maturity and around Matthew Broderick as the new straight-laced bank manager who deceives his 6 month pregnant wife for an impassioned fling with Sammy.  The affair is a good measure of Sammy's desperation.  She wants more than life has dealt her but she doesn't know where to turn to find it.  All roads seem blocked.  Terry is just another burden. 

These issues simmer at a steady temperature without splashy resolutions.  Director Lonergan pulls his punches whenever a genre convention comes into view but he provides a gratifying does of realistic observation in its stead.  Mark Ruffalo has been praised as the second coming of Dean and Brando, and while I find it impossible to see the heat of the old icons in the shell of a slacker, he does deliver a fine, restrained performance while Laura Linney positively shines.  Linney exudes the layers of expressivity that launched Julie Roberts's career in PRETTY WOMAN.  She responds to betrayals, lies, proposals and complaints with a rainbow of emotions; her gentle grace plays off against a steely resolve, her determination against her neediness.  It is little wonder that she is being touted for an Oscar nomination. It may seem ironic, but it is the excellence of her acting that raises the coefficient of reality several degrees.  This is, after all, a movie and a fine one at that. Looking at movies that look at the world, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Bill Nichols.

Copyright Bill Nichols 2000