You Can Count on Me
by Jon Bastian
What happens when you combine an amazing script and talented actors and leave the CGI behind…
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No explosions. No digital effects. No horny teens shagging pastries. And yet, You Can Count on Me, has more emotional impact and more laughs than any five big Hollywood box office smashes combined. Why? Simple. The screenplay is perfection, and everything else comes from there.
According to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, You Can Count on Me began life as a short play, a piece which made it into the final film as a fateful lunch between brother and sister early on in the movie. The stage pedigree of the piece shows, but I mean that in a good way. The movie is very filmic. This is a move-ie, not a static bunch of talking heads. However, it also has certain things that many movies lack. The characters are extremely complex, they have important needs and their actions have repercussions. Also, unlike those big budget flicks, Lonergan knows what not to have his characters say. (This gives me high hopes for his upcoming Gangs of New York.) There’s really only one explicit moment of spoken exposition in the entire film, a single condescension to letting those who can’t figure out what they’ve been shown know one important detail. Otherwise, everything here is woven from an incredibly rich subtext. The artistry of the script, director and cast combined do the remarkable — they show us the story without telling us
The end result is a tale that could have easily veered into movie of the week cliché land but does not, and we get to see this right up front. Two people are in a car accident in the first moments of the film. Next, we have the “sheriff shows up to deliver the bad news” scene. The number of things Lonergan lets us know in this moment while mentioning none of them is amazing. It’s quite clear that a) this is a small town, b) the young girl at the door is the babysitter, c) the kids in the background are the children and d) the folks in the car, those kids’ parents, are dead. Now, in a Hollywood film, you’d have the sheriff say something like, “Oh, hi Amy. Babysitting tonight. Could you come outside, I have bad news,” and then he’d spell the entire life and death story out in great detail, followed by the children’s emotional anguish, blah blah blah. Here, about the only line of dialogue is, “Hello, Amy. Could you tell the kids you’ll be right back and step outside, please. Close the door.” This is followed by a long, awkward, silent moment. Then, just as the sheriff is about to open his mouth to deliver the news, the scene is over.
That single cut told me that what would follow would be absolute brilliance, and the rest film lives up to that subtlety of technique. Those two little kids grow up to become our lead characters, the apparently quite successful and together Sammy (Laura Linney, The Mothman Prophecies) and her ne’er-do-well younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo, The Last Castle). Sammy is a single mother with an eight year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin in his screen debut), a child whose father, Rudy, Sr., has long since fled the picture. Terry gets a letter from her prodigal brother informing her that she’s coming to town, and she’s elated — until she finds out that his silence has been due to a stint in jail and he’s really only come by because he needs a yet another loan from the First National Bank of Sibling. Their lunch together, the original short play, says volumes about these two. It’s obvious that they care about each other deeply and that Sammy would do anything for Terry. It’s the first of many examples of how a well-crafted script in the hands of incredible actors can add up to a few moments that are novelistic in their detail without being catalogs of information. What they say (or don’t say) to each other and how they say it fills us in on everything they’ve gone through in the twenty years since their parents died.
Meanwhile, Terry’s professional life is hitting a rough spot as a new manager takes over at her bank. Picky, petty and the definition of anal retentive, Brian Everett (Matthew Broderick, Election, cast way against type) and Sammy lock horns from their first meeting, when he shows a complete lack of compassion for the difficulties a single mother faces. Their scenes together are hilarious, as Everett expresses displeasure with curt little post-its stuck to her computer screen: “Sammy, See Me ASAP.” And, again, subtlety here is the key. When one of those notes suddenly reads, “Sammy, Please See Me,” it becomes one of the funniest sight gags in the film.
Everything proceeds from Terry’s arrival in a compelling, character-driven story that takes turns you won’t expect, with each action or miscalculation by one of the siblings leading to a reaction in the other that, in turn, leads to the next major action or miscalculation. What’s really going on gradually creeps up on you as layers are peeled away and characters revealed, coming to a header when one of them tries very hard to do the right thing and ends up doing exactly the most wrong thing possible — the ultimate consequence of a carefully crafted lie that’s been in front of our face all along.
Though Linney was the most acclaimed component of the film, the real star is Lonergan’s amazing script. Granted, Linney and Ruffalo are knockouts in their roles, but without such perfectly chosen words, they could not have done it. Lonergan knows how to enter a scene late and leave early, using each carefully selected moment to show us what we need to know, moving along toward the result of the moment and then getting out before stating the obvious. Think of a less bitter, less obscure Harold Pinter and you’ll get the idea. Repeatedly, Lonergan pulls us toward what would be the typical “Hollywood” scene, but wisely cuts away before the stereotype happens. He’s also very good at avoiding ever actually using specific nouns and yet letting us know all. For example, in the scene in which Bob (Jon Tenney, TV’s “Get Real”) proposes to Sammy, the words “marry me” are never spoken — but they don’t need to be. Lonergan pulls off the biggest coup in this regard in the last scene between the siblings, in which the film’s title is given us without ever being said out loud. “You remember what we used to say to each other as kids?” Terry asks. “Yeah,” is Sammy’s reply, and it’s enough. We get it, and they both know what they mean, so they don’t need to tell us.
I really think that You Can Count on Me is the first chick-flick for guys. Yes, it gets into emotional territory, but it’s all very real, as are the characters. And yet, it manages to avoid being sentimental or mawkish in any way. This is real life, heightened for drama, without last minute salvation or easy resolution or gushing apologies after a character’s sudden psychological insight. In fact, the characters are just as clueless about their motivations and flaws at the end as they were at the beginning, but we have been witness to everything and understand all.
You Can Count on Me is a must-see film, and see is the operative word. Lonergan’s script and his powerful cast add up to a moving story that’s told entirely between the lines. Anyone who fancies themself a screenwriter should watch it over and over to learn how it was done. Everyone else should watch it to be engaged, amused and, above all, entertained.
[NOTE: if you rent the DVD, do not watch the trailer before you watch the film, but definitely watch it afterwards for a perfect example of how Paramount’s marketing wonks absolutely did not get this movie, nor how to sell it. They give away more than a handful of nice plot surprises, and try to make the story sound like Peyton Place in the Catskills. It’s not.]
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter living in his native Los Angeles, who is every once in a while encouraged by a film like this to hope that all of Hollywood hasn’t been turned into an inane wasteland by the evil influence of Syd Field.
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