The dynamics of sibling relationships often make for intriguing and fascinating stories and playwright-turned filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan has mined just such a bond in his debut YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. Sammy and Terry were orphaned at a young age and basically were raised to depend on one another. After they became adults, Sammy became a single mother, juggling the demands of work and family while Terry turned into a drifter. They are bonded by blood and ties of love so when Terry returns to their hometown after several years, Sammy is more than just glad to see him. When he decides to hang around a while, it seems like a great idea at first, but gradually familiarity does breed contempt.
Ever since it debuted at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME has generated great buzz, and in this case, it is entirely worthy. Lonergan (who contributed the original idea for ANALYZE THIS and who wrote the dud THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE) makes an auspicious directorial debut. There are occasional dead moments when he fails to fully shape a scene by allowing the camera to linger a bit too long (as if he were photographing a play), but in general his handling of the actors is exemplary. This is a rare instance when the material is so strong and the acting of such a high caliber that the film does not feel like the work of a novice.
Laura Linney is superb as Sammy, turning in one of her richest performances to date. The detail and shading in her characterization makes Sammy a fully-rounded character. Matching her in every way is stage actor Mark Ruffalo who here emerges as a full-fledged movie star. With his dark good looks and brooding presence, the actor comes off as a cross between a young Marlon Brando crossed with Harry Hamlin. His Terry is at once irritating and immature yet wise and compelling. He and Linney are believable as siblings with a shared heritage and language.
There are also fine supporting performances from Matthew Broderick as an officious bank manager who could be a sibling to his Election character and Rory Culkin as Linney's wise-before-his-time son. Broderick provides comic relief as the finicky and overly particular boss with whom Sammy eventually begins an ill-fated affair. Culkin, the younger brother of Macauley and Kieran, is the perfect argument that talent must be genetic, Whether sharing scenes with Linney or Ruffalo, Culkin manages to hold his own. Lonergan himself turns up and nearly steals every scene he's in as a local minister that Sammy turns to for spiritual guidance and Jon Tenney does yeoman work as Linney's long-suffering beau.
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME has an extremely literate script that doesn't rely on clichés or happy endings; the characters and their lives are messy and complicated. Sammy and Terry may or may not have learned anything from their time together (one suspects Terry will continue to go on making the same mistakes in his life) but unquestionably, they have effected one another and, more importantly, the audience. Despite its rather uninspired visual look, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME ranks as a pleasure, thanks to its talented cast and wonderful screenplay.
Rating: A- MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality Running time: 111 mins.