***½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Jon Tenney
written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
by Walter Chaw Five minutes into Kenneth Lonergan's dialogue-driven You Can Count on Me, a pleasant-seeming middle-aged couple having a comfortably banal conversation on a night-ride home gets smeared by a semi going the wrong way. The next moment, we meet up with the couple's children as children, miserable at their parents' funeral, and then flash forward several years to these same children as adults, miserable with the predictably decomposing orbits of their lives. In a film in which very little obvious happens, the most traumatic event of the piece, presented almost casually in its introduction, is easy to dismiss as a plot convenience, when the truth of it is that the death of the parents is the key to understanding the resonance of You Can Count on Me. For all its humor, You Can Count on Me is about dealing with grief and the excruciating difficulty of accepting the burden of maturity and its attendant responsibilities.
A character study in every sense of the word, You Can Count on Me is summarized as easily as: a brother fallen on hard times returns to the town of his birth to visit his sister and her child. There is much potential in the liberating effect that the bohemian Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has on his uptight sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), and her morose little boy, Rudy (Rory Culkin, easily the least irritating of the indefatigable string of Culkin brothers), but assignations of light and dark and simple character transformations would suggest what no one could suggest: that Sammy and Terry are cardboard constructs. Far more useful to say that the reappearance of Terry after a long absence forces both siblings to continue their maturation, left off since their separation sometime in the past. Terry, in other words, is certainly a catalyst, but more a catalyst for a process of growth rather than for any abrupt metamorphosis.
What does seem clear is that Terry and Sammy have become mired in belief systems that are distinct and, in their own way, arrested. Terry is armed with a kind of fatalistic nihilism indicated by his essential childishness and desire for pharmaceutical escape, and Sammy bristles with an equally fatalistic system structured around a rigid morality that she tests with bad dating habits. A wonderful sequence in the middle of the film between the siblings and a spiritual advisor (played by writer-director Lonergan) clarifies not only Terry's view of the world ("I don't want to believe something because I feel bad, I want to believe something because it's true"), but Sammy's as well by her denial that the reason the advisor has visited in the first place is because of her own misdeeds. As Terry and Sammy begin to affect one another, Terry develops some of the responsibility for relating with eight-year-old Rudy as an equal and as a guardian, while Sammy starts to recognize that her rigid morality has prevented her from making good choices.
You Can Count on Me, with its Bach concertos and autumnal provincial setting, is an elegant and tasteful cinematic repast bursting with naturalistic performances bolstered by the ineffable sublimity of a writer with an ear for dialogue. There are no moments that ring false and no sequences weighted more heavily than the next. Of all the laudatory sentiments You Can Count on Me earns and deserves, the most compelling is the idea that it respects its viewers enough not to telegraph its action and punctuate the evolution of its characters with violin flourishes and cymbal clashes. Each day is an important day for characters in flux, and Lonergan takes pains to present a late-in-the-film fishing trip with the same import as a child meeting his deadbeat father for the first time. Emphases are imposed by the audience based on their own experiences and their burgeoning understanding of the human beings born in the electric space between Lonergan and his fantastic cast.
Lonergan's strength as a screenwriter lies with his ability to be an uncritical observer, and his strength as a director lies with his understanding of his own shortcomings as a director. There are no overt messages championed by You Can Count on Me, no pulpits pounded from atop a heel-worn Spielbergian soapbox. Rather, Lonergan depends upon his players--including Matthew Broderick, as Sammy's nightmarish micro-management pinhead boss--to carry his brilliant and subtle screenplay and trusts his audience to leave the film with the satisfaction of not having been taken for granted. In this day of rampant puerility and cynically measured moments of feel-good schmaltz, the appearance of an American film that has the courage to be merely observant and wise is an event, no matter its relative slightness, to be celebrated.
Released under the Paramount Classics imprint, You Can Count on Me's DVD release features an excellent commentary track from affable hyphenate Kenneth Lonergan, though the transfer disappoints occasionally in regards to its video quality. Enhanced for 16:9 televisions and presented in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), the image, while fine overall, betrays a good deal of grain and poor shadow detail in its opening sequence. Extremely noticeable and distracting, it almost seems as if the first five minutes of the film were shot on different stock. The fishing scene on the bridge impresses with its clarity and the depth of its colour palette, however, as do various establishing shots of New England greenery.
Lonergan's commentary track is full of interesting anecdotal information concerning behind-the-scenes errata, punctuated by occasional snorts of self-deprecating laughter. Detailing the unexpected travails of micro-budget filmmaking, Lonergan describes the film's only special effects sequence (involving a broken pipe spraying Sammy's skirt) as an exceedingly hairy shoot because wardrobe had only provided two skirts, thus narrowing the margin of error. With few pauses and a heroic effort not to narrate the on-screen action, Lonergan's track is an invaluable addition for fans of the film and those interested in the minutia of independent filmmaking. A seventeen-minute documentary is Paramount's standard press-junket montage, although Lonergan's revelation that You Can Count on Me began its life as a proposed one-act play does help to place the film in its rhetorical context. The theatrical trailer rounds out the DVD. Originally published: July 25, 2001.