Igby Goes Down

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

IGBY GOES DOWN

5/10

USA 2002 : Burr Steers : 97mins

An uneven dark ensemble comedy about an unhappy New York rich kid, Igby Goes Down makes a lot more sense if you’re aware writer-director Steers played snippy nightclub door-supervisor Van in Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco. This is Stillman territory: the fanciest corners of Manhattan, with the occasional foray over to Long Island’s chic Hamptons area, and perhaps a brief detour to the fringes of Greenwich Village “bohemia”. And it isn’t just a matter of geography: as in Stillman, the characters hardly ever shut up, trading hyper-smart, hyper-ironic, hyper-self-aware ‘anti-dialogue’ to emphasise the emptiness of their well-heeled, unsatisfying existences.

The central figure is Jason Slocumb Jr (Kieran Culkin), a 17-year-old still universally known by his childhood nickname of Igby. His family is dysfunctional in every way, with the exception of their financial status: dad Jason Sr (Bill Pullman) has been festering in a nursing home since his spectacular nervous breakdown; mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) is a society grande dame recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; older brother Oliver (Ryan Philippe) a golden boy whose arrogance is matched only by his academic prowess and glittering future promise. Igby, however, is the black sheep: a disastrous academic failure who runs away from military academy in search of off-beat Manhattan adventures – which include romantic tangles with Rachel (Amanda Peet), the mistress of his billionaire godfather DH (Jeff Goldblum), and with kooky artistic type Sookie Sapirstein (Claire Danes). Complications ensue.

As this (partial) synopsis may suggest, Stillman is far from being the only point of reference – Igby often comes across as a composite of previous bright-but-mixed-up kids from the books of Salinger and Easton Ellis, and movies like Rushmore, The Graduate and The Ice Storm. Igby Goes Down can never shake off the ghosts of these illustrious forebears to establish its own personality – mainly because Steers doesn’t yet possess the ear for dialogue necessary to carry off the very tricky kind of banter (“Rilke – oh, that tortures me!”) in which his characters exchange.

Steers’ directorial contributions, meanwhile, are frustratingly erratic: fresh and bold one minute, tired and cliched the next, culminating in a stunningly dull final shot of an aeroplane taking off into a golden sky. His use of music is similarly hit-and-miss: low points include a standard ‘tinkly piano’ accompaniment to images of a wintry NYC, while tracks from The Dandy Warhols (‘Bohemian Like You’) and Coldplay (“we live in a beautiful world.”) are deployed to underline particular scenes in notably heavy-handed style. Steers should be thankful that an editor as skilled as William M Anderson is around to inject much-needed pep into this somewhat shapeless material.

But it’s the actors who keep the movie watchable: Culkin is seldom off-camera as the potentially irritating and dislikeable ‘hero,’ and he carries his welter burden relatively well – his maroon-and-marmalade scarf suggesting a Harry Potterish devotion to St Mirren. The distractingly starry cast (as well as Sarandon, Pullman and Goldblum, there are cameos from Gore Vidal and Eric Bogosian) features two real standouts: Jared Harris, back on I Shot Andy Warhol turf as Rachel’sflamboyant “performance artist” pal Russel, who was presumably instructed to steal every scene in which he appears.

Harris seizes the opportunity with gusto – in true Philip Seymour Hoffman style, he makes you wish his character was central to events rather than peripheral and wasted on the sidelines (all the while sounding eerily like his father, the late lamented Richard.) Philippe is rather more low-key as Igby’s hated, “fascist” brother – but he’s obviously learned much from his Gosford Park tour-of-duty with the cream of British acting talent: this is an impressively nuanced performance – one that, with a single, unexpectedly poignant line (“much love, right?”) almost manages to counterbalance all of Igby‘s myriad deficiencies.

4th January, 2003
(seen on DVD, 3rd January)

by Neil Young