He’s Her Brother; She’s His Mother

Kenneth Lonergan’s You

Can Count on Me , from his screenplay, brightens the moviegoing year

considerably without making too much of a fuss about it. Making virtuosity look

easy and unobtrusive, however, is not the surest way to win Oscars and other

prizes. Odds are that pictures markedly inferior to You Can Count on Me will win the big awards. Mr. Lonergan’s

creation, you see, is not an event attraction. Instead, it is simple and

humble-albeit deceptively so-as it chronicles the lives and loves of a brother

and sister orphaned at an early age by a delicately described automobile

accident that killed their parents. By quickly laying out the initial premise

of the plot, Mr. Lonergan deftly prepares us for an emotional escalation later,

when the characters of the sister and the brother are more fully defined and

tested under fire.

Sammy (Laura Linney) is a control freak who raises her son

Rudy (Rory Culkin) alone while holding down a responsible position in the town

bank. At first, we don’t know where Sammy’s brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) went

to after leaving home or how Sammy came to be a single mother. A pattern of

ellipses has been set into place to make the past fit together like a jigsaw puzzle

with the ongoing future. A letter from Terry brings him into the mix; he’s in

the midst of a messy situation in Worcester, Mass., with a pregnant young woman

for whom he cannot afford an abortion.

His impending visit to Sammy is driven only by his need for

money. Sammy is angry when she discovers, from Terry’s own lips, what a

shambles he has made of his life-and, worst of all, how comfortable he has been

away from his sister and the small town in which they grew up, and in which

their parents are buried. The plot thickens a bit when Terry learns that his

pregnant girlfriend has attempted suicide and he decides to stay a little

longer, much to Rudy’s delight. Indeed, the scenes of male bonding between

Terry and his nephew are made magical by the performances of Mr. Ruffalo and

Mr. Culkin, and by the mutual yearning expressed eloquently in Mr. Lonergan’s

dialogue.

Meanwhile, Sammy reveals a reckless streak of her own in her

simultaneous affairs with her regular boyfriend Bob (Joe Tenney), who wants her

to marry him, and Brian (Matthew Broderick), her pompous new boss at the bank,

a man who is deceiving his own pregnant wife. All this dangerous juggling of

affinities is achieved with an impressive comic flair that never diverts us

from the tense central relationship between Sammy and Terry. Although they have

spent most of their adult lives apart, they are still the most important

figures in each other’s emotional life.

But Terry wears out his

welcome with Sammy, first by sneaking Rudy into a pool hall late at night and

then by taking him to his father. Sammy’s seedy ex-husband, Rudy Sr., is

remarried, and he disavows his own son and becomes embroiled in a violent brawl

with the relentlessly mischievous Terry. Sammy wants to have it both ways by

keeping Terry nearby, but away from Rudy. Terry decides to leave altogether,

and Sammy is left desolate by his departure.

Ms. Linney gives the best

performance of her career to redeem the not entirely sympathetic role of Sammy,

and Mr. Ruffalo is right up there with her by making a not entirely charming

rascal ultimately sympathetic. I don’t want to start a family feud by

suggesting that Rory Culkin as Rudy surpasses anything his older brother

Macaulay ever achieved, but …. All in all, You

Can Count on Me demands a place on my 10-best list, which is becoming more

and more crowded in this supposedly subpar year.

Four Protagonists, Four Forms of Degradation

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream , from a screenplay

by Hubert Selby Jr. and Mr. Aronofsky, based on the novel by Mr. Selby, is a

movie I had to see twice before I decided I approved of it. After all, I hated

Mr. Aronofsky’s first movie, Pi

(1998), and I disliked the movie based on an earlier novel by Mr. Selby, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989).

Apparently, a little bit of nihilistic paranoia goes a long way with me.

Besides, Requiem for a Dream is

anti-Aristotelian to the core in that its four major characters slide down,

down, down into the abyss without having begun from a high vantage point.

Widowed Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) of Brighton Beach is

misled into thinking that she has been picked to appear on a popular television

quiz show. Since she can’t fit into her one elegant red dress, she begins

experimenting with crash diets, ending with a steady dosage of pep pills. Her

son Harry (Jared Leto), and his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly),

become addicted to crack cocaine after Harry goes into business with his best

friend Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans). As lower-class criminal fate would have

it, Harry and Tyrone run afoul of the Mafia, which does not appreciate

freelance competition in the drug trade on their turf. Meanwhile, Marion

becomes so desperate for drugs that she begins bartering her body for a fix.

Four protagonists, four forms of degradation, and no relief

in sight. Yet the movie is actually exhilarating because of the director’s

kinetic energy and avant-garde fragmentation. I have never seen a movie about

the drug problem that is so radically cautionary. Some of my students seem to

think that the horror-show spectacle is somewhat overdone. I happen to believe

that the so-called war on drugs has been a bigger disaster than Prohibition

ever was. After all, during Prohibition no one went to prison simply for

consuming an alcoholic beverage; what was illegal was the traffic in alcohol.

If everyone who imbibed alcohol during Prohibition was placed in prison,

millions of people would have had criminal records. As it is now, the drug laws

have become an efficient way to incarcerate a large percentage of black males.

I wonder if that is what Congressman Charles Rangel had in mind when he signed

on for the Rockefeller drug laws?

Still, Requiem for a

Dream does not strike me as an assault on the drug trade from the right.

Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Selby are clearly men of the left, with a bone to pick

with the establishment. Somehow we are led to believe that it may be society’s

fault that Sara Goldfarb worships the mass media to such an extent that she

becomes hopelessly deluded about her chances to turn her life around by

appearing on television. “All You Need Is a Dollar and a Dream” is the

propaganda the establishment pours out to seduce the proletariat with dreams of

great riches, to be obtained by gambling on the lottery at far greater odds

than those offered by the mob in the quaint old days of the numbers racket.

But is it edifying to watch victims of mass delusion sink to

the bottom? And what is the alternative to these foolish courses of conduct?

Lives of patience and quiet desperation? There is no movie there. On the other

hand, is the entertainment to be derived from the downward trajectory of the

four co-protagonists in Requiem for a

Dream a form of audience sadism? Perhaps. Yet I felt something closer to

pity and compassion the second time I saw the film than I had the first time.

The sheer emotion expressed in the delusional scene in which Sara hugs Harry,

and pours out all the pent-up feelings she has bottled up during all her years

of loneliness, moved me perhaps more than it should.

If enough members of the Academy see Requiem for a Dream -despite its NC-17 rating-Ellen Burstyn should

be an odds-on favorite to win an Oscar. She plumbs the depths of despondency as

no Oscar nominee before her has. She suffers and she suffers and she suffers.

What more does the Academy want? Mr. Leto, Ms. Connelly and Mr. Wayans are

excellent as well, but they don’t have a chance for a nomination because they

start out enjoying getting high, and they never really consider getting

counseling. Ms. Connelly is doubly cursed for her vivid carnality, which still

ruffles the rating board’s feathers more than either illegal drug consumption

or profane language. Viewers with a serious interest in the art of the cinema

are hereby advised to see Requiem for a

Dream .

A Big Fat Kiss to

Hitchcock

Lou Ye’s Suzhou River ,

from his own screenplay, has been publicized as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s

Vertigo (1958), but it is far from

being a slavish imitation like the recent disastrous remake of Psycho (1960). Indeed, Mr. Ye subverts

the Hitchcock original as much as he celebrates it. The world of Suzhou River -the metaphorical

bloodstream of Shanghai-is full of criminal activity, but there is no murder

mystery to be solved as there is in Vertigo .

There is instead a kidnapping, a possible suicide, a romantic quest and a case

of mistaken identity. Mr. Ye belongs to the sixth generation of Chinese

filmmakers, who have rejected the quest for Chinese authenticity that

characterized the work of the fifth generation.

Shanghai is clearly a

more populous and less orderly city than Hitchcock’s San Francisco, but the

intensity of romantic obsession is the same in both films. Mr. Ye constructs

his narrative around the first-person viewpoint of a voyeuristic

cinematographer who ends up being skeptical about the very story he is telling.

Yet he finds himself losing his sweetheart because she senses that he is not

capable of the single-minded romantic and sexual commitment of the character in

the story.

Suzhou River is

the latest manifestation of a creative explosion that is now taking place

throughout the Far East. We are back in the exciting days of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), but now Japan must share

honors with China, Taipei, Hong Kong and Korea. Who knows where it will end?

He’s Her Brother; She’s His Mother