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Ricardo Baca is the Caller-Times media critic. He can be reached via email at bacar@caller.com.

Friday, February 9, 2001

Human condition is at its worst in 'Count on Me'

Dramatic script and smart, realistic dialogue combine to build emotion-based, character-driven story

"I'm not really looking for anything," Terry said. "I'm just trying to get on with it."
   Aren't we all?
   Terry is a misunderstood soul wandering through life in the new film "You Can Count on Me."
   The film's screenplay was nominated for a well-deserved Golden Globe, as was leading lady Laura Linney. The dialogue - stark, and embarrassingly honest - helped make it the best picture and screenplay at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
   The film's central characters are Sammy and Terry, whose parents died in a car crash when the children were young, and the sister and brother grew up the tough way. Sammy (Laura Linney) took the obvious path of the responsibility-laden older sister and stayed in the tame, conservative Scottsville and got a steady job at the bank. Youthful dalliances left her with a son, and they keep each other company; his father/her ex-beau has long forgotten them.
   Life changes the day her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) comes to town. Whereas Sammy is the stable sister, Terry is the wandering brother who stops in for a visit and asks for a handout.
   Terry's still a wild spirit and doesn't believe in God, but the chemistry between Terry and Sammy's 8-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin) is just what Rudy needs.
   Rudy has been asking questions about his father's whereabouts, and Sammy's unsure what to tell him since the only things she could say about his father are full of profanities. This relationship with his uncle is good for now, she decides, but things continue to fall apart around her.
   Her new boss (a comical Matthew Broderick) at the bank is anal and contemptuous. Sammy's boyfriend-like partner asks her to marry him, and she reacts by getting drunk with her pompous-but-unhappy boss and sleeping with him.
   Meanwhile her brother is pool sharking late nights away with her son in smoky bars and putting him in unspeakably compromising situations, but how can she ream him for not being responsible when she's living the same lie?
   Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan holds an ultra-fine magnifying glass up against the human condition, and it reveals a surface pockmarked with insecurities and tattered with self-loathing. The characters' hearts are often thrashed and stepped upon, and even the 8-year-old takes his fair share of abuse.
   It makes you uncomfortable to think that humans are capable of such treachery.
   The gentle dialogue in the rough script is evasive at times, but by the end, it evokes an unspoken sigh and suddenly everything is OK. Hearts are still broken, but at least they are the hearts of family members, ones that will mend as they always do.
   While on the surface, it seems that the siblings can only count on each other for pain and anxiety, the film dives deeper than that. And it's a dip worth taking.
   Lonergan gives us a carefully crafted, character-driven story. The relationships and events are real and recognizable.
   Because he brings out the danger within the smallest of actions, Lonergan surely is a gifted dramatic writer. He writes smart, realistic dialogue that is the steadfast backbone on which "You Can Count on Me" is built.
   The actors carry out the honest dialogue in diabolical style. Ruffalo's line delivery is completely that of someone who has been hitchhiking through life, and his posture and idiosyncrasies match. And we're introduced to yet another Culkin, this one Rory, and he's a spitting image of his brother Macaulay, but he gives a demanding performance that would have intimidated any "Home Alone" burglars.
   And Linney completes the group; her acting is superb and even her appearance fits the character. Her chiseled, defined cheekbones are definitive of her character's rugged decisiveness and hardness.
  
  

 



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