You Can Count On Me (directed by Kenneth Lonergan)
Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut is a movie with very little plot that is nevertheless masterfully made. At the center, you will fin Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo playing a pair of estranged siblings in two of the richest and most naturalistic performances of their careers. In fact, naturalism, as in capturing little bits of action that ring true to the emotions of daily life and relationships, is the movie’s biggest strength. The movie focuses on a pivotal moment for these siblings’ relationship, but wraps it in a life-sized package. The connection between these two characters -established by Lonergan’s script and fleshed out by the performers- feels deeper and truer than most any depiction of siblings on screen. Not every performance and sub-plot in the movie works as well (I’m looking at you, Matthew Broderick), but the main duo is outstanding.
Lonergan won the “screenplay” award given by pretty much every critics group when the film came out, and deservedly so. The writing and editing in this movie is flawless. Sure enough, my screenwriter professor mentions the movie constantly, and in particular when she wants to emphasize how economical you can be with your scenes. A scene in You Can Count On Me can be as minimal as showing a character have one wordless reaction. That’s what makes this movie so special, that it chooses simplicity when most every other movie would have preferred to scream and shout.
Grade: 9 out of 10
Wonder Boys (directed by Curtis Hanson)
Hanson, a director who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, followed the massive success of L.A. Confidential, with this literary adaptation about a college professor and novelist (Michael Douglas) who is going through some pretty rough times. His wife has left him, his lover tells him she’s pregnant, he is struggling to finish his new novel, his editor is in town, and he must deal with a weird student that won’t stop getting him in trouble. Douglas leads a fantastic cast (Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr, Frances McDormand, even Katie Holmes turns out solid work) that thanks to Hanson’s laid-back direction, and Dede Allen, the editor who seems to get a kick out of every time people are in the same make Wonder Boys a severely enjoyable experience despite the film’s weaknesses.
What are those weaknesses? Well, the movie is at its best when it allows itself to just be. It’s an unassuming film in nature, one that reflects the life-learned pragmatism of its protagonist, and doesn’t want to make a big deal out of stuff that doesn’t require such a treatment. Moments of revelation shock the characters, but always in an appropriately human-sized level. Unsurprisingly, it’s the moments in which the movie goes into bigger histrionics and transparent dramatics that it suffers. Moments in which the characters spell out the themes (“you once told us writing is about making choices”), and wacky antics underlined by a plucky score are not bad, but they feel disappointing compared to the film’s other, more serene, and more rewarding moments.
Grade: 7 out of 10
Erin Brockovich (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
Film critic Tyler Smith often uses the term “Erin Brockovich syndrome” to describe a film that foolishly doesn’t dare question its main character or anything it does. Not in a script level, and not even in the supporting performances that might opaque the star at the center of the film. While I see where he is coming from, I happen to believe that Erin Brockovich is one of the best star-vehicles of all time, and that Julia Roberts’s performance in the title role is the best work of her career. Unlike other “movie star goes serious” roles, Roberts isn’t afraid to draw from her own iconic past -more than one scene here is inspired in her iconic Pretty Woman shopping rant- to builds a serious dimensional character that is simultaneously clearly played by Julia Roberts. That’s the difference between an actor and a movie star.
There are people that complain the movie is just all about Roberts, and that Soderbergh muted his auteurist tendencies to make a bland crowd-pleasing movie. I find the complete opposite to be the case. The most defying aspect about Erin Brockovich is the fact that Soderbergh decides to surrender completely to the movie at the center of it. This is a tough woman doing extraordinary things, and he wants us to notice. It’s conscious style that pays off. Of course, not everything works perfectly. The fact that Erin is always going to be right gets a little tiring, and the romantic sub-plot sticks out as a sore thumb, but other than that, this is robust and solid filmmaking.
Grade: 8 out of 10