I have been staring at a blank page trying to figure out how to write my review of You Can Count on Me. This is the first film in my quest for a classic that I feel doesn’t belong on the list. It’s an above average film, but it’s not among the best films of the decade (and it’s been largely forgotten).
You Can Count on Me follows the adult siblings Sammy and Terry Prescott (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) who lost their parents to a car accident when they were children. Sammy has become a single mother to her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Terry has become a sometimes criminal, and seems deeply ill at ease with his place in the world.
This movie steps wrong in its opening scene – the car accident that kills their parents. Then a cop shows up to tell the babysitter what happened. Then the movie leaps forward to present day. Sammy has a new boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick), who is driving the employees hard because his home life is falling apart. Sammy is also in an awkward romance with an okay guy, and Rudy has reached the age where he is beginning to ask questions about his missing father (an underused Josh Lucas). She receives a letter from Terry announcing that he’s visiting, and hopes that her brother will help take the stress off of her by helping her with Rudy. The rest of the movie concerns Terry’s attempts to bond with Rudy and Sammy’s attempt to navigate the love triangle she engages in with her boyfriend and her boss.
Writer-Director-Actor multihyphenate, Kenneth Lonergan, provides a meaty script. By that I mean that every scene gives every actor an opportunity to engage in the kind of acting that will fill out their real and get them awards at film festivals. It’s a feast for the actors, but it’s not a feast for the audience. Lonergan gets there with a writer’s cheat, he provides a character (played by him) that simply prods his characters with perplexing questions: Do you think your life is important? Why do you think you’re in this situation? Then he lets his characters unleash a torrent of finely written prose that is beautiful, interesting, and extraordinarily well acted and delivered by actors doing great work. Unfortunately, all the characters are talking to Lonergan and not to each other – which means that it’s really undramatic. Imagine if Sammy had tried to wake her brother up to what his life had become by asking, “Do you think your life is important?” Instead, the question comes from a priest played by Lonergan, and the scene is inert even though Mark Ruffalo breathes life into his character’s response.
That’s what happens in every scene in this movie. Lonergan steps wrong, and great actors (Linney, Ruffalo, Culkin, Broderick, and Lucas) act him out of the corner. They dive into the great monologues he writes for them and swim around.
Lonergan may have a firmer hand as a director than as a writer. He reigns in his actors just after they have saved his script and prevents them from showing off, but his mastery of the director’s chair ends in front of the camera. There are scenes in this movie where I think I can actually see the edits – that is, I can tell where the scene was cut and edited back together.
In the end, I was wondering why this movie was on this list. I think it’s because the acting is so brilliant. The script for this movie might work better on the stage, and it feels like a festival darling. It's perfect for those question and answer sessions with the film's cast and crew. It also ends with one of two scenes in the movie where Lonergan lets his characters Sammy and Terry really talk to each other. Linney and Ruffalo make the most of this material and send the audience off on the absolute best scene in the movie.
It’s an above average movie. It earns that rating because the actors did such good work. It’s fortunate for Writer-Director-Actor Kenneth Lonergan that he could count on them.
You Can Count on Me finds itself on this list because Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle named this the best film of the 2000s. It is also the first film in my quest for a classic that appeared on two of the thirty-seven critics’ best of the decade lists.
From out in the Void,
P.S. Because my review was so at odds with every other reviewer, I went and checked out the rest of Kenneth Lonergan's filmography after I finished my review. He is the writer of Analyze This (but not Analyze That). However, he’s also the writer of the film adaptation of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the lesser Scorsese picture Gangs of New York, The Starry Messenger, Margaret (which I heard good things about but was delayed for about a decade before Lonergan put together a more than three hour cut), and the upcoming Manchester-by-the-Sea. Mr. Lonergan has not lived up to the overwhelming praise he received fifteen years ago.