You can count on a movie about real life

Luke Thompson

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film “You Can Count on Me” was adored by critics. Maybe this isn’t too surprising, since Lonergan himself seems to think much like a critic. Just like those Siskel & Ebert types, he heartily objects to what he sees as the average movie’s emotional insincerity and pandering to the lowest common denominator. He tries very hard with “You Can Count on Me” to make the movie that every other movie is scared to be: a movie that keeps it real.

By and large he’s quite successful.

The film starts out with the death of two young children’s parents in a car accident. We see the young boy and girl at the funeral crying at the incomprehensible loss, and we wonder how they will cope with the tragedy.

Flash forward 25 years and we see the answers. Sammy (Laura Linney) has attempted to recreate the meaning and structure in her life that she lost with the death of her parents. She is religious, has a good job at the small-town bank, and has a child, Rudy, whom she cares for diligently. Things haven’t gone altogether smoothly for her, as Rudy Sr. is out of the picture and apparently a bit of a jerk. But, generally she has a solid, if somewhat confining, life.

Sammy’s brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has taken the opposite path after the tragedy. For him the accident was evidence that life is basically chaotic and has no purpose besides what people randomly give it. He got in trouble as a kid and drifted for years afterward doing odd jobs all over the country.

Now he has come back home to his sister after serving a few months in jail and getting a girl pregnant. He loves his sister and he hates to be a mooch, but the inescapable fact is he needs money.

Things are getting tedious in Sammy’s life before Terry returns. Her new boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick), is maddeningly petty and rigid. For instance, he instates a policy of turning in employee time sheets every day instead of every week. Sammy asks him if he really wants to create all that extra paperwork. He replies, “I like paperwork.”

Romantically, she finds herself back with an old boyfriend, but a bit bored with it. For Sammy, Terry’s arrival is like a holiday.

The scene of Terry and Sammy’s reunion over dinner is emblematic of the way in which “You Can Count on Me” works so effectively.

Sammy is beaming with delight at seeing her brother and has gone so far as to dress up for the occasion, but Terry is squirming with guilt, knowing he is about to disappoint her by admitting that all he really needs is a little loan and then, after being away with minimal contact for over a year, he’ll be off again.

The scene works because the two are both sympathetic in their own ways, but the fact that they’re basically good, kind, thoughtful people doesn’t prevent tough issues from coming between them.

Lonergan is ultimately intent on fleshing out all of his characters, even the anal boss, and as a result he produces a story not about good versus evil, but about people versus life.

Of course, keeping things genuine doesn’t necessarily translate to keeping things interesting, and I can understand why people tend to avoid understated little character portraits like “You Can Count on Me.”

Sure, it’s sincere and realistic, but real life doesn’t cater to our needs, it doesn’t try to make us happy; shoot, sometimes it isn’t even all that nice. Why should anyone pay good money to see a movie that doesn’t do any better?

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a boring movie, because it’s not. It’s funny and dramatic and quite beautiful. But, I think it makes sense for people to be confused about why they should bother to go see movies whose greatest asset is truth.

I think that the reason is the same as the reason that Rudy ends up loving Terry so much. Despite the fact that he’s an 8- year-old, Terry talks to him with an honesty and frankness that few adults achieve talking to each other. He treats him like he’s smart and like he can handle life the way it is.

Maybe that’s not what people are looking for all the time, but every once in a while it’s nice to know that some movies out there do the same.

Luke Thompson is a senior in English from Fort Dodge.