Sundance Film Festival Winner – Best Picture
In one of the many subtly beautiful moments of Lonnergan's near masterpiece, Sammy (Laura Linney) and her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) stand outside her house on a damp night, smoke a joint, and talk. I use the word “talk” here and attribute to it all the splendor such a word can possess when describing a common action. True, the actual lines in movies are predominantly scripted, but sometimes human beings, not actors, speak the words from places that are real to them, and we are drawn in, and, in a word, touched. In this particular scene, Sammy, a single mother, lectures her younger brother about being a role model to her son, Rudy Jr. (Another pitch perfect young Culkin; this time, Rory). From off screen flutters in a hapless white moth. The moth catches some light from above, twists about in front of Ruffalo, and lands exquisitely on his finger as he gently lifts his hand to cradle it. The wings are spread, wave twice, and it flies off continuing on its journey. You don't script that. It only happens when something being done is so special that even nature can't resist joining.
It is a rarity to find a film willing to tell a story through an exploration of the relationship, the romance, between a brother and a sister. Realizing of course, not all siblings feel any sort of connection (beyond the coincidence of egg donors); but for those that do know what a brother or sister can mean, this movie is a tribute. The siblings in this case share a bond that runs deeper than most; as we first meet them clutching each other's tiny hands at their parent's funeral. The pathos following the funeral separates the two, but forces them to rely on each other in different ways even when they are apart. Sammy becomes the slightly unstable, but ultimately responsible rock of the family. Terry wanders the earth with despair masked by an uneasy smile, running from some pain that sits in his stomach. We find Terry in an apartment that can only be described as someplace you might find on 189th and Amsterdam in Washington Heights. He needs money, so he reluctantly, yet naturally, must go home to get it. Sammy is home.
Laura Linney is up for the Best Actress Oscar for her convincing, emotionally involved, performance of Sammy; finding the accurate measures of hypocrisy, loneliness, and sincerity to play this complex character. Mark Ruffalo definitely should have been nominated for Best Actor. His performance infuses Terry with a constant, almost inherent, discomfort and shame that makes your heart break. You just want to protect Terry, as he returns as a bum to his hometown. A town that is sure to condemn him without trying to understand. Even Sammy forgets at first that there is a grace hidden within Terry, behind the blank stares, spacey references, and cigarette addiction.
Dealing with Terry's return is not Sammy's only problem. Her son, a bright, curious, living reminder of her wild past, needs a father figure to fill the empty impressions he has of his actual father being a 'stand-up guy'. Then there are “the men” as a local preist derides Sammy, commenting on her meaningless affairs with loser men in town; it seems she just”feels sorry for them”. We do not need to believe her as she confuses the wonderful trait of mercy mixed with the self-serving sin of lust.
The ever-evolving Matthew Broderick as her married boss, Brian, plays one of her charity cases. He plays the complex character well- as he did in Election, but there is something about an adult, authority figure Broderick that is disturbing. We all suffer from Post-Ferris-Syndrome.
The movie works best when it boils down to pure character relationships. When Culkin and Ruffalo exchange, ideas, gestures, glances, or anything else- there is magic happening on screen and anyone watching feels it.
What turned me off a bit was the overly ( to use a Ben Skydell word) 'didactic' message Lonnergan sometimes works into the film. A scene where Sammy talks innocently to the priest outside church, just as Brian happens to walk past them with his pregnant wife, is inexcusable in such a well-crafted movie.
However, overall, the real message of the movie, that nothing can be so desperately needed, but so hurtful like family, comes through loud and clear without Lonnergan ever having to knock us over with any one scene. Although, if I had to pick one beauty, it would be when Terry surprises Sammy by showing up to take Rudy Jr. fishing. That is ,as the commercials say, 'Priceless'.
The Spencers, or Awards a movie deserves but will never get