Sibling conflict, etc. – Review – movie review

D.H. Drei

THE DUAL protagonists in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me have an on-screen relationship that is electrifying. Sammy (Laura Linney, Truman’s wife in The Truman Show) is a party girl-gone-straight, while Terry (Mark Ruffalo), about 30, never left adolescence. After a long separation, Sammy is thrilled about seeing Terry again, but old problems reappear quickly. The reason Terry didn’t write for months was because he was in jail. He’s still not attending church. And Sammy begins to suspect that Terry’s visit has less to do with love than with a dire financial situation. “I wish you’d just sent me an invoice,” says Sammy.

Sammy and Terry are not lovers; they are brother and sister, a relationship Hollywood occasionally acknowledges but rarely make the crux of a story. What Lonergan is able to mine from their relationship is engaging: the unconscious spite, the stubborn judgment and the rankled affection. He’s certainly helped by Linney and Rufallo, who say more with body language than with syllables.

The third leg of the film’s delicate emotional triangle is Sammy’s son, eight-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin, brother to Macaulay), who is jerked in opposite directions by his strict mother and his carefree uncle. Most films–even a serious costume drama like 1997’s Mrs. Brown–side with the carefree rather than the strict; Lonergan, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, bravely chooses not to take sides.

Sammy’s defensive decision to put some distance between Rudy and Terry is perhaps misguided, since Terry is slowly becoming the father figure the child needs. But even more misguided are Terry’s attempts at rubbing Rudy’s face in selective honesty about Terry’s personal targets of ire. Lonergan shows the painful results of Terry’s transgressions.

Sammy talks to a minister (played by Lonergan himself) twice during the film–once when she is concerned about her brother’s behavior, once when she is concerned about her own (she’s having an affair with her boss). Both times, there is a reversal of expected roles: Sammy is nostalgic for the day when clergy would scare sinners with thoughts of hell, while the new pastor is more concerned with identifying motives than with condemning behavior. It’s Lonergan’s ability to twist the expected into something authentic, compelling and unexpected that makes You Can Count on Me such a joyous film.

The Wind Will Carry Us: The main character in this Iranian film, called “the Engineer” by the townfolk, is another person concerned about behavior. He even asks a village boy point blank, “Do you think I’m bad?” It’s not an unexpected question given his predicament: he can’t complete his job in the village, which apparently is to photograph a ceremony, until an invalid woman dies. It doesn’t take long for him to become impatient. A villager, not knowing the nature of the Engineer’s problem, asks if any of his tools would help. The Engineer’s answer: “One blow from the pickaxe would do.” Later, he kicks a turtle onto its back in a vain attempt to control the life and death of something, anything. As he turns around to leave, the turtle amazingly rights itself. Death is thwarted again.

There are serious questions that The Wind Will Carry Us is obliquely trying to bring up: How much control do humans have over their destiny? How responsible are we for saving others’ lives? The questions are probably chapter headings in some Philosophy 101 textbook, but the film’s saving grace is that it never brings them up directly; it’s through our interest in the characters, particularly Behzad Dourani’s agitated engineer, that the implied questions become interesting. Further, the film has a dry wit that lessens any pretentiousness. The pickaxe episode is played for humor, albeit black.

Abbas Kiarostami is Iran’s most acclaimed director (at least among American critics), and The Wind Will Carry Us displays not only his keen eye for scenery–this must be the most picturesque film released this year–but also his keen sense of realism. Like last year’s Japanese film After Life, which had a similar theme, many of the actors are amateurs playing versions of themselves. And as in After Life, the method helps create a film in which nary a gesture or line, no matter how improbable, rings false.

Reviewed by Matthew Prins, a critic for .

Pay It Forward: For anyone with an ounce of idealism, or any fond memories of singing “Pass It On,” Pay It Forward offers some morally powerful moments, at least at the beginning. It opens with a facially scarred teacher, Gene Simonet, directing his students to come up with a plan to change the world. Simonet, as played by Kevin Spacey, exudes some unusually dangerous vibrations in the seventh-grade classroom. What he’s seen of the world has given him a cold intensity: he doesn’t really expect his students to shake off their adolescent lethargy, but he’s got no energy for coddling them either.

Fresh-faced Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense) takes him up on the challenge. Trevor proposes a chain letter of good deeds. He’ll do a good deed for three people (it has to be something important and something hard, he says) and then instruct each recipient that the way to pay him back is to “pay it forward”–to do good deeds for three other people, who are instructed to pay it forward, and so on. Trevor’s classmates seem stunned by this vision of advancing altruism, or perhaps by the fact that Trevor doesn’t just blow off the assignment.

There’s a nice edge to the fact that an outbreak of compassion is regarded as socially outrageous. When Trevor puts his idea into practice by inviting a homeless man to sleep in his garage, his dissolute mother (Helen Hunt), a waitress in a Las Vegas strip joint, thinks he’s crazy and heads off to school to scold Simonet. For a while, it looks like the movie will use the “pay it forward” idea to examine the disruptive power of compassion.

Hollywood tends to make children the repositories of virtue in a messed-up world, and in this case Trevor not only shows more wisdom than his parents (his abusive father, also an alcoholic, returns briefly) but more maturity than any adult in Las Vegas. A graver problem is that the movie ends up focusing on a domestic situation. Trevor’s idea of a good deed for Simonet and for his mother is to pair them up. That way, his lonely teacher will find the companionship he lacks, his alcoholic mom will get the solid man she needs, and Trevor will get the stable household he desires. Trevor as matchmaker is cute, but domestic cuteness is not what the movie should be aiming for.

Even worse, the movie starts mythologizing the “pay it forward” scheme before examining concrete acts of compassion. It’s as if “paying it forward” is really more interesting as a media event than as a moral project.

Reviewed by D. H. Drei, a freelance writer in Chicago.

COPYRIGHT 2000 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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