Show Me the Mean De Niro … Why I Love Laura Linney

Show Me the Mean De Niro

Cuba Gooding Jr. did not, in my opinion, deserve an Academy Award for yelling “Show me the money!” in Jerry Maguire . Still, he has since proved he is more than just another momentary morsel from the Hollywood cookie jar. This guy can act. Elevated to stardom in Men of Honor , he balances his jiggle with real craft.

Men of Honor is an ennobling but conventional action epic about Carl Brashear, a dirt-poor Kentucky sharecropper’s son who joined the segregated U.S. Navy to better himself and fought overwhelming prejudice, fear and hatred to become one of its most esteemed and decorated heroes. Mr. Gooding plays him with slavish dedication and reverence while the slickly crafted film, solemnly written by Scott Marshall Smith, directed with assurance by George Tillman Jr. and enhanced by Anthony Richmond’s superb underwater cinematography, catalogs one hair-raising crisis after another.

Basically a men-in-action biopic that dumps mop pails of blood, sweat and tears on the audience (often appearing more preposterous than factual), Men of Honor has no business being as engrossing, exciting and entertaining as it is. I don’t have much interest in movies about Navy divers or the barges they floated in on, but I left this one exhilarated.

Joining the Navy with dreams of surpassing the kind of bondage that killed his father in the backwash of Kentucky, Brashear was forced to jump so many hurdles it’s miraculous that he didn’t become a sociopath. At the Navy diving school in Bayonne, N.J., his superior was an old war hero with “more screws loose than a Studebaker” (colorfully played in mad Captain Queeg mode by Hal Holbrook). Worse still, his obstacle course was further obstructed by Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), an alcoholic, hell-raising redneck determined to teach the cocky black recruit his place in the military scheme of things by calling Brashear “Cookie” and demoting him to short-order cook while the white boys do all of the swimming. While the loony, obsessed Mr. Holbrook polishes his medals and fights off germs, the angry and disillusioned Mr. De Niro does everything in his power to flunk the black sailor. Grizzled, gnarled, wearing a permanent scowl, he sabotages Brashear’s skills at every turn. But nobody can destroy his spirit and determination to make something of himself, and Brashear miraculously makes history by becoming the U.S. Navy’s first African-American deep-sea diver.

But the movie doesn’t end there. In 1968, he also became the first amputee in Navy history to be restored to active duty. In the process of compiling so many facts, the film suffers from a common problem in biopics by crowding every low and high point in a long eventful life, including every period detail, into a two-hour story. Brashear’s inspiring marriage to an educated law student (Aunjanue Ellis) is paralleled with Billy Sunday’s volcanic marital boxing matches with his own sluttish mate (Charlize Theron, who seems to have a new movie opening every week). Sometimes the condensation leads to hasty images of abrupt metaphors (one minute after Brashear is introduced to, spit upon and ostracized by the white sailors, he’s alone in the barracks being inspired by a radio report praising Dodger rookie Jackie Robinson), and we feel we are being rushed through Carl Brashear’s story-not to mention the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s-for expedience.

There are just enough small, satisfying scenes for balance, and a dossier of exemplary performances by a fine cast that includes Michael Rapaport, Powers Boothe and David Keith. The power of the two central figures in an absorbing, monumental combat of wills-one man who does not know the meaning of the word “No” and the other a cantankerous bigot who hates any kind of authority except his own-gives the film an undeniable and riveting force. According to this version of Brashear’s story, a grudging respect developed between the two men, even when their naval careers ended at different ends of the scale, and the film makes a sobering point about how little glory there is in being a hero.

Above all, Men of Honor offers the thrill of watching two brilliant actors square off against each other. Mr. Gooding’s perseverance, pride and vulnerability jell into a truly compelling and convincing portrayal, while Mr. De Niro’s performance as the villainous diving instructor who stands in his way is haunting in its nuanced depiction of a man whose bitterness wrecks his own goals and forces him to re-evaluate his own definition of honor. Together, they bring to an often-familiar survival epic a poignant and stirring dimension that turns Men of Honor into one of the year’s most affirmative adventures in humanity.

Why I Love Laura Linney

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan, the esteemed playwright whose laurels include two plays as marvelous as This Is Our Youth and The Waverly Gallery (which brought the great Eileen Heckart back to the New York stage for a brief but triumphant run earlier in the year), could also be the same man who wrote the screenplay for the moronic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle . A fella’s gotta pay his rent wherever he finds the cash, I guess. Now he’s directed his first film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, and I’m happy to say his talent for realism and restraint are undiminished.

You Can Count on Me is an extremely well-acted and thoughtful work about the unspoken bond that connects siblings, no matter how different they are. Sammy, played by the incandescent Laura Linney, is the responsible, hard-working single mother of an 8-year-old son living in a small town in upstate New York who has followed the straight and narrow path in life while her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has roamed the map getting into every kind of trouble. Orphaned as children, their lives have taken them in different directions, but when Terry-feckless and broke, with a string of bar fights, arrests and broken love affairs clouding his past-returns home for funds and moral support, Sammy’s maternal instincts and her need to be needed outweigh her better judgment.

A serious church-goer and devoted parent, Sammy has nothing in common with her disenfranchised sibling, but he’s still her brother. Her little boy instantly adopts Uncle Terry as a surrogate father, but the immature intruder turns the kid into a playmate, taking him to pool halls and to a disastrous meeting with the father he’s never met. With her equilibrium off balance, Sammy turns to her liberal, understanding priest for help, but he turns out to be more dysfunctional than everyone else. Matthew Broderick makes a vibrant contribution as the plodding, neurotic new manager at the bank where she works, and when Sammy reluctantly begins an affair with him that is leading nowhere (his wife is six months pregnant), it’s obvious that Terry is not the only one with problems.

A rare foray into the antiseptic prairies of American naturalism, You Can Count on Me chronicles the brother-sister dependency with such careful deliberateness that the film meanders badly in the middle, but Mr. Lonergan fits the pieces together as meticulously as the mechanisms inside a Rolex. The relationships are so completely believable, and the performances so sincere that I found myself grateful for the leisurely pace. By the end, you feel you know these people intimately because the film has given them the time they need to know each other. Ultimately, Sammy’s tedious life conflicts with Terry’s rebellious and nomadic existence, but blood is thicker than Perrier. While Mr. Lonergan provides no easy answers to their dilemma, he leaves no doubt that their hearts and wills will always be tied by a bond of love, no matter how slender the threads remain. Every performance is engaging, honest and emotionally direct, but the intelligence, strength and charm of Laura Linney is the main ingredient that holds this film together. The wrong blondes get all the attention these days; her time in the center spot is overdue.

Two Ladies With Great Pipes

Musically, two cherished ladies of song are sparking up the cabaret scene. At the Algonquin, where Susannah McCorkle’s sophistication, hip phrasing and warm, burnished voice will be dressing up the place through Nov. 25, you know you are in the presence of a very accomplished artist indeed. This engagement showcases the songs from her latest Concord Jazz CD, Hearts and Minds , with a superb narrative about love lost and found in the chaos of the Big Apple that bastes the musical passages together, and a voice that soothes, coaxes, massages and convinces most attractively. There’s a song for every mood, and this sultry stylist shares each one with an abundance of spirit, heart and class. On A Night in Manhattan , at least a dozen selections by Sondheim, Billy Joel, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and others are cleverly woven into a matrix of the city where we all keep alive and moving while waiting for the next person, the next opening, the next appointment, the next experience. Dave Frishberg’s witty “My Attorney Bernie” illustrates the possibility that, if all else fails, who needs a relationship anyway as long as you’ve got a good lawyer? Her own composition “The Computer Age” shows the futility of hiding from love through technology. A rapturous rendition of the obscure Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece “Love Look Away” and a dark song of compelling allure called “Scars” are among the many highlights. Holding the ends of notes with the right soupçon of delicate vibrato, lightly swinging into joyous jump tunes or exploring delicate new ways to shade ballads, Ms. McCorkle is one of a small handful of suave and selective chanteuses who are not afraid to journey where Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer have traveled before. By the time she gets around to “Our Love is Here to Stay,” you’re praying she means it.

At Feinstein’s at the Regency, Barbara Cook wears the crown (through Nov. 25) with a focus on Stephen Sondheim and some of the songs he says he wishes he had written. With “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” and “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” I have my doubts. But the beatific, legendary Ms. Cook sings them all with gorgeous intonation, perfect pitch and unparalleled passion. Her amazing pipes haven’t aged a day since she lit up the Broadway stage in She Loves Me . In fact, she can still hit the B-natural-one half-tone below a high C-on that show’s show-stopping “Ice Cream” with awesome ease. Slowing down the racetrack tempo of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” so you can hear the lyrics for the first time, she turns a flippant comedy number about rejection into a “Screw you” declaration that leaves the audience cheering. From the wistful purity of Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” to the been-around torchiness of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “I Wonder What Became of Me,” she’s a mood-altering model of perfection. The cello quality on her low notes and the clarion call in her upper register accent her ever-growing artistry without losing any of the youthful humor and sweetness that made her Broadway’s golden girl in the 1960’s. There may be more of the mature Barbara Cook than there used to be in her ingenue days, but all of it is in such glorious shape at Feinstein’s that more is still not enough.

Show Me the Mean De Niro … Why I Love Laura Linney