You Can Count on Me
directed by Kenneth Lonergan
(Paramount, 2000)

Welcome to Scottsville, N.Y., a picture-perfect Catskills town where the pictures aren't quite as perfect as they first appear. Take the Prescott family portrait.

Samantha "Sammy" Prescott (Laura Linney) seems to be doing a pretty good job of balancing her life as single mom and loan officer for the Scottsville branch of Outpost Bankers Trust. But Sammy's son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), is beginning to ask questions about his long-absent father, and new branch manager Brian Everett (Matthew Broderick) has trouble adjusting to Scottsville's unorthodox methods of doing business, which include far too much flex-time and far too little unnecessary paperwork, not to mention multicolored computer screens. So Sammy pins her hopes on her globe-trotting brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), but hopes dim when little bro arrives from Worcester all weeded up and much in need of a new wardrobe.

All this could be gut-bustingly funny if we didn't know what we learned in the opening scene: that Sammy and Terry's parents died in a car crash one evening as the siblings lay watching TV on their living room floor with their babysitter.

Gone in under 60 seconds.

Of the two, Sammy has fared better. Terry has been drifting around the country working at odd jobs and even doing a brief stint in jail. But the clock is ticking for Sammy, too, who's been told that if she wants to keep her job, she'll stop taking her lunch break at 3 p.m. so she can meet Rudy's school bus. So she enlists her black-sheep brother as an in-house child-care provider, setting in motion a chain of events that's as wisely droll as it is complicated.

You Can Count on Me is a film that's Shakespearean in its plot machinations and Capra-esque in its outlook. The most poignant scenes -- Terry taking Rudy to a bar to shoot pool and to a trailer park to meet his long-gone-but-unfortunately-not-lost father -- belong to the most buffoonish character. Meanwhile, the silliest scenes -- Sammy popping up in a motel bed with her boss -- go to the most serious.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was nominated for a bushel-basket full of awards for You Can Count on Me, including an Oscar for best screenplay. And he won Independent Spirit Awards for best first feature and script. Linney (The Truman Show, Absolute Power) also was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and she demonstrates why repeatedly throughout the film, especially when she offers spiritual advice to the town minister.

In their wisdom, Hollywood's marketers have packaged You Can Count on Me as a film full of hugs and kisses. Hugs and kisses it has, but it's just as full of stresses and strains, a larger-than-life reminder that brotherly love and sisterly love, like fatherly love and motherly love, don't always come easy.

Sure, all's well that ends well, but nobody in this film is focused enough to make it to Washington. They just have to keep doing what they're doing and hope it works out for the best. Fortunately for us, the viewers, it does.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 2 February 2002

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