Published Dec 01, 2002If there's one thing I thought movies had taught me over the years, it's that New York is the most magical and joyous place on earth to live if you are stinking, filthy rich. If you happen to be poor, however, it's pretty much the definition of hell. But Igby Goes Down, the wonderful new film from writer/director Burr Steers, taught me a new movie lesson. New York is still a great place to live, even if you don't have the necessary liquid assets. You just have to surround yourself with rich people and live beyond your means.
That's what Jason "Igby" Slocumb, Jr. (Kieran Culkin) is doing, sort of. Igby does, in fact, come from a well-to-do family, but one that has fallen on hard times since his schizophrenic father was summarily dispatched to the funny farm. Until he can get his hands on his trust fund, Igby relies on the generosity of his godfather/benefactor D.H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum) so he can attend the most exclusive private boys' schools on the eastern seaboard. But Igby couldn't care less about school. Draped in a black wool pea coat and a scarf that looks like a reject from the Gryffindor House at Hogwart's Academy, Igby's pale brooding stare gives away his role as resident troublemaker. In fact, Igby has been kicked out of nearly every school on the eastern seaboard, much to the dismay of his controlling, hateful mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon, having a grand old time playing a half-soused shrew).
"If heaven is such a wonderful place, than how is getting crucified such a big fucking sacrifice?" Igby asks the headmaster at his current parochial school, right before getting the heave-ho. In addition to his foul mouth and penchant for weed (which he stashes inside a green apple in his dorm room) Igby also enjoys lying and getting into slap-fights with his shrink. He doesn't enjoy the broom beatings he gets from the other boys at military school, though, and eventually has a short stay at the Clipped Wings teen crisis centre. Baines takes pity on his pathological protégé, and offers him a summer job as a house painter and a temporary vacation in the Hamptons. "Your house is on the beach, right?" he asks Baines immediately upon learning that Mimi has breast cancer and needs a mastectomy.
Under the supposedly watchful eye of his older brother, golden child Ollie (Ryan Phillipe), who is majoring in "neo-fascism" at Columbia, Igby manages to bed Baines' mistress Rachel, a junkie artist with a meaner streak and emptier pockets than even Igby himself. He decides not to return to school in the fall, and instead hides out in Rachel's downtown loft. With the help of the alluringly bitchy Sookie Sapperstein (a corkscrew-haired Claire Danes) he hatches a plan to get his general equivalency high school diploma so Mimi can no longer control his life, even from her deathbed.
After stealing the spotlight from a dishwater-bland Emile Hirsch in last summer's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Kieran Culkin is a marvel to behold as the disturbed young Igby. He's archly funny, yet doesn't project a single false note, and his emotional meltdown is genuinely touching. Culkin's younger brother Rory (Signs) appears as the young Igby in flashbacks with Igby's father (Bill Pullman, who manages to be effectively disturbing with little screen time). You've got to love those Culkins. Just when you think the dynasty is over, a new one emerges. They're like button-nosed weeds.
Everyone in the Igby cast seems to be having the time of his or her life while delivering razor sharp, impeccably timed and impossibly clever dialogue. Danes does her best work since My So-Called Life as Sookie, the irony-soaked "pseudo-bohemian" smart ass. Goldblum, Peet and Jared Harris (as a gay, Pepto Bismolswilling drug dealer) are all fabulous. The only exception is Phillippe, who is his usual dead-eyed self.
A movie like Igby Goes Down could have easily been sidetracked into empty pomposity, but the emotional centre of Igby, both the movie and the boy, is solid and true. While it doesn't reach the delicate, mythological brilliance of last year's The Royal Tenenbaums (or any of Salinger's work, for that matter), Igby is as refreshing and satisfying as a Central Park breeze on a brisk autumn day. I recommend you go down and see it.