Rob’s Must Watch: Screenwriting

On an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes misguided one-season-and-done series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, writer Matt Albie (a proxy-of-sorts for Sorkin) responds to a colleage’s comment that a certain actress was making his material work: “I don’t want her to have to make it work. I want it to work when it’s handed to her.” It’s probably not beneficial to become categorical about these things, but it’s safe to say that some lines, reactions, arcs, plots, etc. “work” on paper and some of them work only because of an actor’s skill. Some of them work because of varying amounts of contribution by both. It’s a give-and-take, to be sure, because good material demands good acting and good acting demands good material. There’s no way to conduct an experiment and get the lab results signifying which party is most responsible for the success of the character and/or film. Sometimes it seems impossible to tell the difference. Yet, I think it’s a significant point to claim that many film-watchers ignore what’s already on paper (what’s “handed to them”) and focus only on how it soars in the mouths and on the faces of actors. A great actor can cover up flaws in a film. He or she can almost eradicate flaws in a film. But great acting only goes so far, and without the proper foundation of the screenplay, the surrounding film only does as well. There’s also the director to consider, and, indeed, the editor, which complicates the matter further. We’re talking about an inherently collaborative art-form here (a good score, I should mention, does wonders), so I’ll hardly get much leverage out of trying to decide who “deserves” the credit for any given successful moment. But with a film like You Can Count on Me, I see it primarily as a showcase for writing, even if the actors are so perfectly wed to it.

You Can Count on Me is one of my absolute favorite films of all time. It’s also, not coincidentally, one of my absolute favorite screenplays of all time. It’s articulate work about inarticulate people. It’s focused work about unfocused people. It’s empathetic even…no, espeically…when the characters forget to be so. Great writing is not always about what’s said; sometimes it’s about cutting lines and letting the moments speak for themselves. We never hear an announcement of Sammy and Terry’s parents’ deaths. We never hear that Terry’s girlfriend is pregnant and needs money for an abortion. We never hear the line that Sammy and Terry said to each other when they were kids. We don’t hear these things because we don’t need to. Stating them outright would hamper the reality of the screen-story and betray important character behaviors. Sometimes less is more: when Sammy frustratingly exclaims “You suck!” it has more effect than a carefully constructed, adjectivally busy insult ever could. There’s insightful wisdom behind the common verbiage and awkward stammering and muffled “uhs” and “ums.” Take the scene wherein Sammy visits her priest and asks what the Church’s current stance is on adultery and fornication. She’s told that it’s a sin, but the Church tries not to focus too heavily on that aspect of it. She doesn’t understand this: “Maybe it was better when you came in here and they screamed at you for having sex with your married boss. They told you what a terrible thing it was. They were really mean to you. Maybe it would be better if you told me that I was endangering my immortal soul and that if I don’t quit, I’m gonna burn in hell!” The droll priest can be read as incompetent, but he doesn’t say much to Sammy because he doesn’t need to. She already knows that her actions are wrong. She just needs to force herself to end them. A lot of significant character development manifests itself not in highfalutin speechifying but in gruff, relaxed, low-pressure interactions. This is what makes You Can Count on Me so special. It cares about its characters enough to let them find profundity in the mundane, and it cares about its audience enough to let them do the same, but never with dictated emotion or a hard-driven message.

Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are indescribably good in this film. Every scene in tandem, from their painfully knowing initial conflict to their bittersweet parting of ways, rings absolutely true. I’ve had a soft spot for Ruffalo’s Terry for many years, and it continues to grow after each viewing. The scruffy, mumbling ne’er-do-well is one of my most cherished film characters, and a lot of that has to do with the actor. But those moments are built into the screenplay: an impulsive sob after tragic news, a flash of regret after mistakenly attempting to shatter Rudy’s idealism, giddy excitement at the prospect of fishing, revulsion toward the plumber, the furrowed brow and disheveled garments and ubiquitous cigarettes/joints and complete certainty that he has no idea where he wants to go and therefore no path to get him there. The acting is great, sure, but You Can Count on Me worked when Kenneth Lonergan handed it to them.

-Rob

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