IGBY GOES DOWN
written and directed by Burr Steers
opens Sept. 20 at Metro and Uptown
Being a fairly smug, arch person myself, I have a higher-than-average tolerance for smug, arch dialogue, and any movie set (largely) in Manhattan wins my vote. But not everyone will cut Igby Goes Down so much slack. While brimming with clear, strong performances and often lacerating writing, Burr Steers' debut feature is a smarter-than-average dysfunctional-family flick that doesn't quite transcend its genre. Returning from its festival-opening slot at SIFF, Igby treads ground already made very familiar by Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger. The rarefied air is less quirky and more contemporary than in The Royal Tenenbaums, but Holden Caulfield's hatred of adult hypocrisy remains the same.
Seventeen-year-old Igby (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' Kieran Culkin) revenges himself against his cold, cancer-stricken mother (Susan Sarandon) by fleeing prep school for the SoHo loft of his godfather (Jeff Goldblum). Now self-pity is the birthright of any pampered American teenager, but why such anger toward his chilly mom? Flashbacks reveal how his beloved, schizophrenic dad (an affectingly damaged Bill Pullman) is in the nuthouse, yet this animus remains unclear. (Does he believe his mother drove his father crazy or what?)
Igby has washed out of too many schools already, sneers his supercilious brother (Ryan Phillippe): "He's already done the Protestant circuit." Ouch! Talk about elitest banter; all poor Igby has left is military or Catholic school— how plebian! Later Igby declares, "Not going to New Jersey isn't procrastinating. It's common sense." In fact, he's avoiding taking the GED exam in N.J. during his picaresque escape from family, teachers, and responsibility. His extended N.Y.C. hiatus leads him into bed with a few babes, into conflict with his godfather, and even into a brief stint as a drug courier, which I call a well-rounded education.
In a big cast with not a few cameos, imperious Sarandon and haughty Goldblum are great fun to watch. Supporting talent like Bennington beatnik chick Claire Danes (coveted by both brothers), leech-artist Jared Harris, and heroin hottie Amanda Peet is no less skillful. Yet all the colorful personalities and weighty coming-of-age moments bump along haphazardly, and Steers allows some fairly dreadful ballads to substitute for emotion that should, properly speaking, be written and acted instead.
With all its posh pathology and acid invective, Igby is like the dark side of a Ralph Lauren ad; everyone looks great and dresses fabulously, but approach them at your own risk—they bite! Interestingly, Steers acted for Whit Stillman in The Last Days of Disco, but he hasn't yet found Stillman's elegant balance between entitlement and its discontents. Igby simply lashes out at those around him because they're "cold" (the worst epithet he can hurl). "I'm drowning in assholes," he complains—like he isn't one himself? This reduces Igby to a boy and his quest for, gulp, genuine emotional attachment. In that regard, the rich may be no different than the rest of us, but they have a much better time torturing the ones they love.