As good as it gets

by Ed Symkus

As Oscar time approaches, and no clear-cut winners are stepping out front, there's as good a chance as any that this quietly entertaining little film is going to bring home some gold. Mainly because of the two categories it's been nominated in. Laura Linney is up for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Kenneth Lonergan hopes to triumph in the Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen category.

Both deserve the statuette. Linney's is a real star turn, a luminescent performance that she's been leading up to in films like The Truman Show and The House of Mirth, the latter for which she easily could have been nominated as a supporting actress this year.

And Lonergan's script is one of those that simply but perfectly captures a bit of real life, a rarity in films these days. There are just no false notes in any of the words or lines these characters say to each other.

A brief prologue, taking place a number of years ago, tells of a terrible car crash and the resulting parentless brother and sister, who are youngsters at the time. Shooting up to the present, she has grown up to be Samantha -- you can call her Sammy -- (Linney), and he is Terry (New York stage actor Mark Ruffalo). Sammy is a lending officer in a small town bank and a single mother bringing up her boy, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Terry is a ne'er-do-well, an errant young man who kind of bounces around, never settling down, now returning home, out of the blue, to sponge off Sammy for a while, in the house where she now lives, and where they both grew up.

An interesting addition to the mix, and a great jumping-off point for some of Lonergan's oddball ideas of comedy, comes by way of Matthew Broderick's wonderfully uptight performance as Brian, Sammy's new manager at the bank. Brian is a stiff, follow-the-rules nitpicker who cheerfully says that he likes paperwork; Sammy is a free spirit, albeit one who always gets the job done. No doubt, there's going to be some trouble.

Actually, Sammy has trouble coming from all different directions. Aside from her new jerk of a boss, aside from her long-troubled relationship with her brother, aside from the fact that her kid is complaining that there's not enough structure in his school assignments, there's Bob (Jon Tenney), her on again-off again boyfriend, and the only person she's comfortable talking with about the bad times with her ex.

But the most trouble revolves around Terry, who has come home with no plans, smokes too much pot and starts, against Sammy's wishes, to become a sort of surrogate father to lonely Rudy, with whom he gets along famously. Terry's job around the house involves being a handyman and/or picking Rudy up from school. The only reason Terry will give for coming is that he's "got a girl in a situation."

Anyone who's ever been involved in a difficult brother-sister relationship is going to identify with what's going on here. It's on these two folks that the film concentrates, even when the bank boss snaps out of his everyday demeanor and plants some major surprises on Sammy. And it's Sammy's side that most viewers will choose, especially when she turns to her little brother and in total exasperation, says, "No one knows what to do with you!"

Now a lot of this might sound like it's hard to take, one argument after another, and so forth. But it's not. Throughout the entire film, there's a funny little charm that keeps peeking its head through. Some of it comes from Linney's terrific performance, some comes from Ruffalo's well-meaning loser act (and even more comes just from looking at Ruffalo's usually smiling face). But most of it comes from Lonergan's script. And that shouldn't be a surprise, as his crack writing has been an important part of the hilarious Analyze This and the problematic, but underrated The Adventures of Rocky & amp; Bullwinkle. Here, even though he's often dealing with serious family issues, he manages to keep things mostly light.

Lonergan even shows up on screen as a pastor with some surprising advice. But it's not just Sammy who's surprised. Anyone who sees this film will be, as they enjoy this leisurely story that cuts right to the heart of things. It's one of the most unassuming films to be seen in a long while.