It's one of those movies that tells its own understated little story in which nothing too dramatic happens, with interpretations left up to the audience. It's not obvious what it's about. After some reflection, I've decided that I think it's about people who over time undergo a process of growing up and so become more worthy of the movie's (mostly ironic) title. Don't take my word for it, though.
The main character is a hard-working single mother (Laura Linney). She goes to church every week, she's serious-minded and she works hard to provide for her son (Rory Culkin). However her brother (Mark Ruffalo) is about to hit town. At first glance, you'd call them opposites. Anyone can see who's the respectable one. Linney's a dutiful small-town girl who works in a bank, whereas Ruffalo starts fights and recently did time in prison, while one of the first things he does on arriving is borrow money from Linney.
What we gradually discover though is that all these adults being placed in a position of responsibility are immature. The oldest-seeming person in the cast is eight-year-old Culkin... and yes, that is one of the Culkins. "I think that's unstructured." Is the brat some kind of freak? (To backtrack for a moment, maybe there's nothing too much wrong with the priest.) Anyway, Ruffalo's an unreliable semi-criminal scuzzball whose idea of babysitting includes playing pool for money in a bar, but the corollary of this is that he's capable of interacting with Culkin in ways Linney can't. As an illustration of this, consider the early scene where Linney's worrying about how to start telling Culkin about his absent and slightly evil father. Look at how Ruffalo tackles the same issue. He clearly grows as a person over the course of the film and, instead of being a danger to himself, becomes someone you could almost consider relying on.
Incidentally one of Ruffalo's very first lines is, "I'm not the kind of guy everyone says I am." Even right at the beginning, is that true?
So Linney's the saint, right? Wrong. At one point we're told that when she and her brother were young, she was the wild one. Culkin asks her if this is true. She tells him to shut up. She makes some seriously dodgy choices here, although in fairness she then has crises of conscience about them with her priest. I'd never say she'd been a bad mother, but look how she too grows during the film. See how she treats her boss at the end. She's turned into his mother!
Other authority figures are similarly flawed. Linney and Ruffalo's parents died in a car accident. Linney's boss at the bank is the kind of manager who thinks he's doing a good job if he's made you change the desktop colours on your computer. The priest refuses to deliver moral judgements, even when directly asked about matters of sin and the Ten Commandments.
Anyway, this is a thoughtful story with an interesting cast. It's written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who'd worked in the theatre but never directed a movie before, and he also plays the minor role of the priest. You'll need a bit of patience, though. It was also popular with the judges of awards, with its haul including two Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Linney) and Best Original Screenplay.
The cast's all good. Linney's obviously excellent, although I also loved Ruffalo and I found myself recognising Josh Lucas in a late cameo as Dad. However the most discussion-worthy name is Rory Culkin, the youngest of the seven siblings in a certain famous family. Macauley was number three. They look very similar. Rory's still working today, incidentally, although most of the photos I've found of him make him look sullen. He looks more human when he does that slanted half-smile, but that's it. Anyway Lonergan was generally impressed with Culkin as an actor, but he had such trouble getting the boy to laugh or even smile on camera that he'd occasionally tell Ruffalo to start tickling. This was Culkin's first real role, after playing younger versions of his brothers in films like Richie Rich and Igby Goes Down.
Apparently Mark Ruffalo is going to be Bruce Banner in the upcoming Avengers movie, while Josh Lucas was in Ang Lee's Hulk. Here they have a fist fight.
This isn't a "stun your friends" movie. It's just following its very good cast as they go about their simple lives, make mistakes and drive each other crazy. It feels believable to me that Lonergan has a theatre background, because that's the kind of dynamic his story is running on. He was also lucky enough to have Martin Scorsese as his friend and executive producer. Personally I wouldn't necessarily have picked this out as an Oscar-nominated film of the year, but I thought it was intelligent, well acted and in control of itself. Perhaps slightly inconsequential, but only if you're ignoring all the character growth. It has fun bits too. The pool game was entertaining, for instance. Film buffs should love it.