Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): You Can Count on Me

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You Can Count on Me

Movie buffs are always looking for a little guidance in their journey through the thickets of cinema. I've debated the value of canons with friends (I'm very pro-), but most people, consciously or not, rely on some sort of structure at some point in their video odyssey. I rely on several, faciliated by my Netflix queues (which the company had to backtrack from deleting, thanks to customer outcry). One of these is the 250 best films of the 21st century, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They? I avidly followed current releases in the nineties, but around the turn-of-the-millenium I stopped paying attention to what was coming out each weekend and in the process, I've been more or less out of the loop when it comes to contemporary cinema.

You Can Count on Me was the highest ranking film I hadn't seen, after Spirited Away. At #29, it's obviously well-thought-of (the rankings are based on year-end critical top-10 lists), but I knew next to nothing about this 2000 release before going in. A relevant aside: this blog should probably contain a permanent warning to the effect of "There Will Be Spoilers" but for now consider this fair warning. The movie opens with a couple in their car, obviously returning from some sort of party, in silence. The wife is thinking to herself then turns to her husband and asks, "Why is it that they force adolescent girls to wear braces at the time in their life when they are most insecure about their appearance?" Moments later they are creamed by an oncoming Mac truck.

This scene is certainly not played for morbid laughs, but the more cynical among us may consider this gruesome accident an appropriate response to the quirky, "offbeat," oh-so-adorably random (but so real!) dialogue we've just heard, especially in the completely artificial way it's delivered. I didn't want to dislike You Can Count on Me, but after the beginning, followed by some scenes which seemed to be straining for verite while falling somewhere closer to semi-cloying calculation, I thought I was in for the antecedent to our current oversaturation of quirk. Was this Little Miss Sunshine's ancestor, or Junebug and Juno's progenitor? None of these films were awful and the latter two especially have their charms, but their fusion of faux-sincerity and artificial wackiness has grown tiresome. Luckily, You Can Count on Me has something else in mind.

That something else comes in the form of Mark Ruffalo as a shambling, charming, but completely unreliable brother to Laura Linney's ever-responsible single mom. Turns out they were the little kids we saw holding hands during the funeral sequence that unfolds under the credits, but it took me exactly fifty-two minutes to realize that was who they were supposed to be. That's excessive, since early on, Linney's and Ruffalo's dead parents are referred to (and we also see Linney placing flowers on their graves, though I just thought she was a friend of the family and expected her story to be connected to the deceased's later on - there's nothing to indicate a jump forward 20 years, so I doubt I'm the only one who made this mistake). The screenplay's penchant for ambiguity misfires here, but elsewhere it is richly rewarded.

Early on, the film hints at its ambitions beyond the usual indie family melocomedy. The upstate New York town it takes place in is a real character, and the soaring mountains overlooking the hillside cemetary do as much to elevate the film's atmosphere as the frequently played Bach excerpts. It's increasingly rare that filmmakers choose to widen their scope when dealing with intimate material, and it's entirely refreshing to be reminded that small stories need not be accompanied by airless cinematography and over-precise set design. When writer-director Kenneth Lonergan adds little screenwriting touches to show characterization or development, they have a tendency to fizzle, but his expansive openness and interest in messiness don't just save the picture, they bring it close to greatness.

After the slightly over-calculated feel of the film's introduction, Ruffalo and Linney's long-separated siblings reunite in a restaurant and the movie takes an unexpected left turn. The dialogue rambles, Linney's reactions are slightly off-kilter, and Ruffalo twitches (other than the siblings smoking pot on a rooftop, drugs are never mentioned; but it's clear that the brother has experienced, and may still be experiencing, addiction). The scene doesn't exactly work - it takes a while to accept Linney and Ruffalo as brother and sister, and the air of improvisation is a bit too chaotic - but the refreshing jolt of Ruffalo's arrival provides just what the movie needed.

Soon Ruffalo is living with his sister and her son (played by Rory Culkin) and though he offers himself as a much-needed male role model for the boy, his appropriateness as a father figure is always in question. Meanwhile, Linney isn't exactly a choirgirl either (major spoiler ahead if you stuck with me this long). Her relationship with her dopey but vulnerable boss (Matthew Broderick) turns out to be a variation of "start by fighting, end up fucking" though I honestly didn't see it coming until the scene right before she asks him to dinner. Actually, I wished the movie hadn't gone in this direction as quickly as it did and by movie's end I still wasn't entirely comfortable with the Broderick storyline. It proves to be a bit of a dead end though it gives Linney a moral dilemma of her own and gives Broderick the opportunity to play another one of his patented squeamish nebbishes (question: how did an actor who was the epitome of cool in Ferris Bueller's Day Off wind up playing endless variations on Principal Rooney?).

But despite its misfires and mixed blessings, You Can Count on Me immerses itself in what feels like a very real family, with all the requisite regrets, complications, and complexities. The scene in which Ruffalo brings Culkin to meet his deadbat dad for the first time is a masterpiece of confused motivation: is Ruffalo trying to bring the boy to an awareness of how harsh life is, does he genuinely hope for a rapprochement between father and son, or is he just selfishly looking for an opportunity to belt the guy who wronged his sister, with the kid as bait (it's telling that right before these scene, uncle and nephew are fishing)? It's impossible to parse out the good, the bad, and the misguided in the character's intentions, and he himself would probably be unable to do so. You Can Count on Me is awash in blessed ambiguity, the lifeblood of great drama, and one of the best things that can be said about the movie is that at its end, nothing is resolved. Lonergan proves exceptionally adept at capturing the texture of life, aided by Ruffalo as an agent of unpredictability.

When brother and sister part ways at the end of the movie, neither one has really changed. They've been shaken a bit, and challenged in their beliefs, but they've both snapped back to where they were initially. Each one chooses what works for them, and has worked in the past. They're driven by needs and impulses they don't understand, and must deal with on their own terms, in in their own way. This doesn't mean the film is relativistic (a viewpoint that is perhaps more limiting than any other). It instead recognizes the mystery and doesn't have the hubris to offer any easy solutions or transformative changes. Life's too complex for that.

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