Counter Culture 

Counter Culture 

Counter Culture 

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Reviews of the latest films.
Nov. 17 2000 3:00 AM

Counter Culture 

The dialogue stars in You Can Count on Me. The 6th Day thinks through cloning and capitalism. Why'd they bother with How the Grinch Stole Christmas?  

You Can Count on Me
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Paramount Classics

The 6th Day
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Columbia Pictures

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Directed by Ron Howard
Universal Pictures

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To make a splash as a playwright nowadays, you need a welter of glittering epigrams, a fancy theatrical metaphor for class (or racial or gender) struggle, and a surly disdain for naturalism. Kenneth Lonergan's work has none of these things, yet he has somehow emerged as the most potent dramatic voice of his generation—the real deal. The reason that his plays (the best known is This Is Our Youth) are at once so understated and so vivid can be discerned in his first film as a director, YouCan Count on Me—which also happens to be the best American movie of the year.

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What the film is "about" can't be summed up in a line: Its themes remain just out of reach, its major conflicts sadly unresolved. But Lonergan writes bottomless dialogue. When his people open their mouths, what comes out is never a definitive expression of character: It's an awkward compromise between how they feel and what they're able to say; or how they feel and what they think they should say; or how they feel and what will best conceal how they feel. The common term for this is "subtext," and You Can Count on Me has a subtext so powerful that it reaches out and pulls you under. Even when the surface is tranquil, you know in your guts what's at stake.

Almost from the start the movie is numbed by loss. It opens with a man and a woman at night, driving. The woman comments grimly that it's ironic how adolescents get braces at the exact moment that they're most self-conscious. The man shrugs. Then they swerve to avoid a pickup truck, and a policeman knocks at the door of a house where an adolescent girl (with braces) and her younger brother are watching television. The cop, who knows the girl, opens his mouth but can't bring himself to speak. He could be the movie's mascot.

Then we meet that girl, Sammy (Laura Linney), as a grown-up, putting flowers on her parents' grave. She has a smooth, autopilot sort of life in that same family house, where she's raising her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), by herself. Sammy has no contact with her ex-husband, which has allowed the boy to spin out all sorts of fantasies about the father he has never met. Lonergan is such a brilliantly offhand writer that an early, seemingly inconsequential remark of Rudy's—that he resents a homework assignment because it's too "unstructured"—provides a clue to his melancholy. Sammy is a devout churchgoer: She thinks her foundation is solid. But her faith can't keep the structure of her and Rudy's life from sagging.

What sets the narrative in motion is the arrival of Sammy's younger brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a stoner and a drifter who works odd construction jobs and anxiously dodges connections. He has been out of touch for six months, and he only shows up now because he's running away from a woman whom he has impregnated. The first scene between sister and brother is indelible. Ruffalo's Terry, with his thick, snarled hair and glazed eyes, sits opposite Linney's Sammy in a restaurant but doesn't want to meet her gaze. He fidgets, looks around, frowns over his salad, speaks as if from a great distance. He wants to stay inside himself, to keep his anger and confusion under wraps, but Linney is so present, so up front in her effort to reach out and engage him, that he loses his cool and screams at her how terrible it is to be "back in this f—ing hole getting lectured again."

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For lack of a better plan, Terry sticks around and, almost without meaning to, bonds with Sammy's son. In some ways he's a healthy presence—he's rather fatherly. In others he's like one of Ibsen's dementedly misanthropic idealists, filling the boy's head with weirdly acid denunciations of the town and contriving a nightmarish encounter with the absent father. Sammy wants him to stay on, wants to change him and restore his faith. But can she risk living side by side with such despair, such chaos?

I could watch You Can Count on Me again and again just to savor the ways in which the characters try to communicate. Out of context, the lines aren't especially memorable, but beat by beat there's more going on than in movies 10 times more explicit. Watch how Sammy and her occasional lover (Jon Tenney) make small talk and then attempt to hug after sex: Their hands bump and their arms move at different speeds, and you know in that instant that they're not and never will be in sync. Watch how the hilariously unlikable new boss (Matthew Broderick) at the bank in which Sammy works attempts to project authority through bullying corporate-speak and ends up looking like a lost little boy, and how this unexpectedly touches her, so that she ends up having passionate sex with him.

On her way to meet Broderick at a hotel, Linney listens on the radio to Loretta Lynn singing, "(I'm) the Other Woman (in Your Husband's Life)." She shakes her head, abashed, as if to say, "Oh, how sordid I am"; then a cackle of pure, what-the-hell defiance bursts out of her; then she shakes her head again, abashed. Lonergan is a genius at showing you the somersaults and back flips and triple-gainers of the average mind in the course of about 10 seconds; and Linney is marvelous at bringing out the tensions between this woman's firm mask and quivering soul. Her plainness is utterly gorgeous.

Lonergan himself puts in an appearance as Sammy's laid-back minister, to whom she turns in the hope that he can reach her wayward brother. The minister/playwright poses an earnest question: "Do you feel your life is important?"; and it's Terry's inability to answer it that gives us our fullest glimpse into his heart. As a director, Lonergan is similarly unimposing and yet penetrating. Two shots from inside Sammy's car as she drives through the town (the film is set in upstate New York) defines her universe, but beyond that there's not much flash. Lonergan doesn't yet know how to make the camera show us things that his dialogue doesn't, but when you write dialogue like he does, you can take your time to learn. Hell, he can take another 20 movies to learn.

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In The 6th Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not ideally cast as a man who's wracked by the knowledge that he has been cloned and that his perfect replica now resides with his wife and daughter. As The Terminator (1984) wittily demonstrated, Schwarzenegger already looks as if he has been designed by scientists bent on world domination; and with his lumpy physique and fairly obvious cosmetic surgery, he's hardly a comfortable spokesman for the "natural cycle of life." Of course, he's hardly a comfortable spokesman for anything in English. His smug witticisms sound as if he has learned them phonetically, and every line he utters is instant camp. When the two clones meet and Schwarzenegger acts opposite himself, there's so much dead weight that it looks as if the screen will topple over.

That said, The 6th Day is a fun ride. It's loud and obvious, but it's also the first high-tech, sci-fi thriller to think through some of the implications of cloning and capitalism—the idea that, no matter how the government legislates, big business will find a way to make genetic immortality available to anyone with enough money or power. As the billionaire villain, Tony Goldwyn is scary because he's so matter-of-fact in his ruthlessness, like an Internet CEO, and the screenwriters have given him a ghoulishly perfect comeuppance. Robert Duvall, in one of his take-the-money-and-grin roles, is Goldwyn's chief scientist, and raspy Michael Rooker leads the team of assassins. Schwarzenegger kills them but they keep getting recloned, smarting from phantom wounds or cursing the fact that they have to get their ears pierced again.

The director, Roger Spottiswoode, does clean work, but this once serious moviemaker (he made Under Fire in 1983) has evolved into something of an impersonal hack: A movie about the horror of cloning in which all the characters are disposable doesn't have the impact you might hope for. The 6th Day also dodges the most haunting question, which has nothing to do with actual duplication. These clones have distinct and separate consciousnesses, which makes it unclear why some characters seem relatively untroubled by their imminent deaths. I don't want someone who looks and thinks like me to go on in my place: I want to go on, and who cares if I have the same body? Actually, I'd rather have another body—just so it doesn't look like Arnold's.

The elegant Chuck Jones/Dr. Seuss cartoon of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is the perennial miracle of the holiday TV season. At half an hour, including commercials, it feels about the right length. The songs are tuneful and funny, the animation witty, and the voicing peerless. Boris Karloff makes a classic bogeyman Grinch and a warm and grandfatherly narrator. Motivation isn't an issue. Why does the Grinch hate Christmas? "Oh please don't ask why/ No one quite knows the reason," says the narrator. "I think the most likely reason of all/ Is the fact that his heart was two sizes too small."

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The new, live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas doesn't settle for this biological-determinist interpretation of the Grinch's misanthropy. It takes a humanistic approach and gives the Grinch a lengthy "back story." See, he had some genetic problems (deformity, green pallor, a tendency to munch on glass bottles) but was also teased and driven into exile—which makes him clearly redeemable. Little Cindy Lou Who, the book's adorable crawl-on, is now a crusading anti-materialist who wants to save the Grinch from his loneliness. And the real villain of the story is the pompous mayor of Whoville.

As the Grinch, Jim Carrey is often wonderful. He chomps an onion, rubs his underarm with the juices, then sticks his snout into the camera and grins. He's an inventive, mercurial comedian with an expressive body. But he can't transcend the banality—or the confusion—at the heart of this conception. This Grinch is profoundly unnecessary—cluttered, padded even at 90 minutes, indifferently narrated by Anthony Hopkins, and consistently misdirected by Ron Howard, whose cocked cameras make it look like an especially bad TV Batman episode. Five-year-olds might go for it, but people who grew up with Jones' version will be looking at their watches and grinding their teeth. I'd like to think that Karloff's Grinch would find his "vulnerable" new counterpart more irritating than all those caroling Whoville Whos.