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"You Can Count On Me" is a satisfying heartwarming story that doesn't disintegrate into pathos.

Brother's Keepers

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Unlike your typical Hollywood heartwarming drama, "You Can Count On Me" resists transparent, button-pushing pathos. Instead, this tale of ties that bind — albeit loosely — sneaks up on you, doubling its tear-jerker impact by catching you off guard. Laura Linney, who hasn't been particularly embraceable in past roles with her cool and distancing blond looks, here gets a character we can warm up to. And the Academy agrees, having just nominated her performance for a Best Actress Oscar. Her Academy Award-nominated role is that of Sammy Prescott, a seemingly stable single mom who attends church regularly and has a good job as a loan officer at the local bank in a small upstate New York town. But that's just at first glance. A closer look shows us that she's struggling to find a strong male role model for her 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin, the younger, talented brother of Macaulay). His selfish father certainly isn't a prime candidate for the job. In fact, he's never even acknowledged the boy. An honest scrutiny of sometime boyfriend Bob (Jon Tenney) also pegs him as an unlikely possibility to bridge Rudy's parental gap. But then, out of the blue, Sammy's genially shiftless brother, Terry (the wonderful Mark Ruffalo), shows up looking for a loan. He winds up sticking around, turning into just the man Rudy and Sammy need. Although Sammy and Terry share a traumatic childhood — they were orphaned when their parents died in a highway accident — there's also a palpable tension between them because of the different paths they've chosen. Sammy has decided to stay in the family home. Terry is a penniless drifter who will always choose to abandon girlfriends and spend time in county jails. She thinks he's irresponsible. He can't understand why she hides herself away in such a dull, hopeless place. Slowly but surely, Terry's presence brings out Sammy's wild side, as well as her need to be punished for being impulsive. Ignoring her usual common sense, she dives recklessly into an affair with her married, bureaucratic boss Brian (Matthew Broderick). In equal but astonishingly opposite measure, Terry starts to reveal evidence of being reliable. "I'm not the kind of guy everyone says I am," Terry explains, which Lonergan successfully hints at the first time that we see Terry. Indeed, the beauty of Lonergan's original screenplay (which also just earned an Oscar nomination) is that none of his characters are quite what they seem to be. Like real people, they're fluid and adaptable, capable of learning, changing and challenging the lives they appear locked into. Ruffalo is terrific at suggesting the open nature of Terry, who's hooked on the freedom of choice his homeless existence offers. While Linney has the less ostentatious role, when she does take Sammy on those sudden detours from the status quo, the effect is all the more shocking. Much of the script's warmth and humor comes from the way the two interact, bouncing off each other, morphing in and out of traditional family roles, creating blended, bonded personalities. Although I sometimes felt as if I was watching a play and the actors were reading from scripts, the movie's strengths far outweigh its minor weaknesses. "You Can Count On Me" refreshingly blends an independent-film spirit with a big-studio budget and will not disappoint. This gentle drama offers a heartfelt look at the universal family paradox of wanting to leave home while wishing to stay.

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