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Recounting the Joys of "You Can Count on Me"

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2000


    'You Can Count on Me' Laura Linney confronts boss Matthew Broderick in "You Can Count on Me."
(TSG Pictures)
In "You Can Count on Me," small isn't just beautiful. It's terrific.

By small, I refer to the below-the-radar activity that takes up most of our time: the joys, misunderstandings, passions, animosities and yelling matches of everyday living. This is the stuff you don't see in Hollywood movies, except as minor accompaniment to "bigger" concepts, such as the saving of the world, the sinking of the Titanic, etc.

Kenneth Lonergan's movie, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the recent Sundance Film Festival, exults magnificently in this stuff.

"You Can Count on Me" is a humanistic gem of a movie, with unforgettable performances from Laura Linney (the movie's endearingly uptight heroine) and Mark Ruffalo (her free-spirited, pothead brother). The interaction among these and other characters is so absorbing and (above all) so non-hyped, there's no need for special effects or over-the-top premises.

Linney plays Sammy Prescott, a well-ordered person and single mother who lives in a small town in upstate New York. She attends church, works at the local bank and is devoted to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin).

But she's having trouble with her nitpicking boss (perennial manchild Matthew Broderick), who's unsympathetic toward her child issues and objects to such things as purple-colored text on computer screens.

Some deeper part of Sammy is feeling stifled. She's crying out for what comes next: A visit from her drifter-brother Terry (Ruffalo), who doesn't plan his life but figures things out as he goes along. Seems he's got this girlfriend and she's in, you know, trouble. And he could use a little, you know, money. And, well, he's been out of touch because he did a little, uh, jail time and . . .

"What?" she exclaims, mortified. Once again, her brother is messing up. And once again, Sammy has to play the responsible sibling.

Sammy, who needs someone to watch Rudy, talks her brother into doing the honors. But although Terry connects wonderfully with Rudy, his idea of child care is hardly gleaned from Dr. Spock. He thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette, cursing like a sailor and advising Rudy to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he's old enough. And then there's the bar and pool game he has in mind for Rudy's entertainment one night.

Sammy loves Terry, underneath her strenuous objections. And his presence in her life is really beginning to affect her. She starts to do things on impulse – which I won't get into. But the point is, her soul starts to loosen up.

"You Can Count on Me" is a fountain of narrative surprise. You never know where this thing is going. And it's such a pleasure to tag along with these characters. Even Rudy Jr., the kid who listens wide-eyed to Terry's countercultural vision, has a fascinating emotional journey. The scenes between him and Terry are marvelously unaffected.

Ruffalo is tremendous. He makes Terry so anguished, so slow on some things, so thoughtful on others, his character almost stumbles off the screen. Linney enjoys the best roleof her career. She's graceful, charming and full of amusing foibles – a sort of thinking person's Helen Hunt. She makes Sammy more than a sanctimonious goody-goody; she's a soul hungry for fulfillment, even if it means slightly dangerous adventure. There you have it: a movie that hinges entirely on character. It could be that the summer/fall season of hyperbolic story lines has induced me to oversell this movie. But I'm letting my giddiness ride. Maybe you will, too.

"You Can Count on Me" (R, 111 minutes) – Contains a brutal fistfight, sexual scenes, obscenity and pot smoking.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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