- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2000

The large-scale disenchantment that distinguishes groaners such as "Charlie's Angels" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" makes one even more grateful for the modest "You Can Count on Me."

This admirably realized — and admirably timed — sleeper is playing exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.

The scarcity of impressive Hollywood titles as the year draws to a close may enhance the award prospects of a disarming "little" picture, although it probably will require near-unanimous raves and some key prizes to bring it within curiosity range of a mass audience.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan and cast members — notably Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, who portray a briefly reunited sister and brother named Sammy (short for Samantha) and Terry Prescott — have created straightforward, affecting character studies.

Mr. Lonergan's screenplay, expanded from his own one-act play, and Miss Linney's performance probably stand the best chance of sneaking up on the approaching awards season. The material offers understated humor and emotional generosity in depicting a haunted and troubled, yet valiantly hopeful, family bond.

The polemical malice on which last year's Oscar winner, "American Beauty," seemed to thrive is alien to "Count on Me," which is sanely comfortable with a segment of small-town America and blessedly free of the compulsion to scorn or sabotage its characters.

Mr. Lonergan, whose concentration never is scattered, works in a transparent fashion. He begins with a prologue that identifies the fundamental source of ongoing sorrow and uncertainty in the Prescott siblings: the deaths of their parents in a car accident almost 20 years earlier.

Much of what we observe can be attributed to the emptiness created by those grievous losses. Mr. Lonergan contrasts the distinctive traits of Sammy, who clings to familiarity and stability, with those of Terry, who prefers to run away from them.

Sammy has remained in their hometown, called Scottsville, in upstate New York. She lives in the roomy, attractive house inherited from her parents. She has an 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin, the youngest of the acting Culkin siblings), who is the offspring of a youthful failed marriage.

Terry is a saturnine drifter who renews contact with his sister while in need of money and temporary shelter. He has spent some time in jail since their last reunion and abandoned a girlfriend.

Sammy works as a loan officer in a Scottsville bank, freshly destabilized by the arrival of an officious new manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick), who complicates her life by disapproving of her picking up Rudy from school each afternoon.

Crestfallen that Terry's return is partly mercenary, Sammy nevertheless rolls with the punch and feels gratified when Rudy, whose father lives nearby but has no contact with them, begins to grow fond of his moody uncle.

Terry also relieves Sammy of chauffeuring obligations with some regularity. His willingness to hang out with Rudy even provides Sammy with sudden opportunities to exploit a love life.

Her love life proves to be more complicated and absurd than she bargained for. Terry mentions in passing that Sammy was something of a wild one before she settled down as a single, breadwinning mom, and her amorous misadventures tend to confirm this family secret.

She's still close enough to Terry to confide her entanglements, which amuse him. She also confides in her Methodist minister, Ron, played by Mr. Lonergan. Ron has two priceless scenes as a spiritual adviser who hasn't quite got the answers Sammy needs, in part because she would prefer a simple, uncomplicated punishment for her sins. Evidently, she's in the wrong congregation for that sort of consolation.

Despite the rough patches, Terry's visit seems to be evolving in a mutually beneficial, or at least stimulating, direction. Then Terry's wrecker impulses get way out of line.

He insists on arranging an impromptu meeting between Rudy and his father, which goes as wrong as the rendezvous James Dean arranges between his mother and brother in "East of Eden." In the aftermath of this ugly scene, Sammy decides Terry has to go, and the siblings try to come to an adequate understanding before this new separation.

Mr. Lonergan misses a few opportunities to fill us in on pertinent facts between the tragedy, circa 1982, and the present-tense reunion. He also fails to take Terry's calamitous brainstorm as far as he should. What slips out of range particularly is the point of view of little Rudy as he is dragged along on a fool's errand.

If an 8-year-old Haley Joel Osment had been available to play Rudy, the movie might have achieved deeper emotional reverberations. What it does achieve is an exceptionally touching blend of seriocomic intimacy and heartache. Barbara Stanwyck's cautionary remarks to Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve" about not jumping to conclusions about bad girls and good girls are applicable here.

Sammy's admirable efforts to preserve a respectable home for herself and Rudy in Scottsville are not to be scorned, but Sammy does have feet of clay and remains capable of making bum decisions, especially about men.

Terry is the chronic screw-up, and his being a rolling stone will remain a constant source of anxiety to the people who love him, but he's not entirely hopeless or feckless. His means of salvation remain speculative.

TITLE: "You Can Count on Me"RATING: R (occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief simulations of intercourse; fleeting graphic violence; traumatic family loss as a prevailing theme)CREDITS: Written and directed by Kenneth LonerganRUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

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