Igby Goes Down
By Matt Mulcahey
Kieran Culkin’s Igby follows Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, Aaron Stanford in Tadpole, and Thora Birch in Ghost World in an evolution of disenchanted youth that has seemingly sprung forth from the glossed-over simplicity of adolescence pushed upon us by the mid-90’s teen movie renaissance of She’s All That and American Pie.
Despite his immediate contemporaries, Igby most resembles the ultimate icon of disaffected youth in J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caufield. With both character’s hatred of the falseness of adulthood and the film’s Manhattan setting, Igby is in some ways a modernized Caufield, though one whose experiences in New York (sex, drugs, etc.) lack the simplicity of Caufield’s sojourn through phoniness. Though he does resemble Salinger’s jaded protagonist, Igby’s attitude makes him a creation that stands apart. Lacking the tongue-in-cheek wit of Tadpole, or the stylized caricatures of Rushmore, Igby exists in a very real world.
His mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) is the pill-popping, cold-hearted, controlling picture of self-involvement and is never really concerned with Igby’s problems themselves. Igby’s father (Bill Pullman) is a schizophrenic who had a breakdown when Igby was a young child and the rest of the family has never really recovered.
Igby’s older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) has become completely numb and repressed, a Columbia business major who probably sleeps with a picture of Ronald Reagan under his pillow (picture Alex P. Keaton without the sense of humor).
Haunted by his own demons and hatred of conformity, Igby rebels in a series of acts of self-destruction for self-destruction’s sake. He gets kicked out of nearly every elite prep school on the eastern seaboard, gets tossed from military school, and ends up in drug rehab before Mimi sets up one last shot at the only prep school still willing to take him. Igby goes on the lam, leaving the insular world of Washington’s upper-class suburbia for the Big Apple and a series of, well, nothing really.
Which is one of the great things about Igby Goes Down. The movie isn’t a series of adventures in which Igby learns something about himself. He’s a slacker who wants to coast through life, with an easygoing indifference that makes him as much a younger version of Ethan Hawke’s Reality Bites character, as Salinger’s contempt-filled protagonist.
Igby ends up crashing at the loft of Rachel (Amanda Peet), an artist who doesn’t paint, but does shoot plenty of heroin. She’s the mistress of Igby’s godfather and benefactor D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) and Igby quickly finds himself in the midst of the wrong crowd, including a bizarre performance artist drug pusher (Jared Harris, son of the late, great Richard), and a fellow lost-soul-in-prep school dropout turned flowerchild wannabe Sookie (Claire Danes). With his turn as Igby, Culkin assures his place as the first member of his acting clan whose career will survive past puberty. Culkin perfectly mixes his character’s cockiness and vulnerability and his sarcasm-laced epithets drip with both confidence and insecurity.
Danes, who seemed washed up at 21 after Brokedown Palace and the ill-advised Mod Squad remake, reminds us of why My So Called Life made her seem like the next great young American actress. Goldblum and Pullman also turn in suprisingly good performances, with Goldblum stretching a bit from his normal routine and Pullman doing his best work since The Last Seduction, and arguably the best work he’s ever done.
Phillippe is also effective, though he does pretty much the same monotoned routine he has perfected in the last couple of years. He does it well and it’s perfect for this character, but Phillippe has yet to show much range. Sarandon is the movie’s one note that is played off-key. She’s all melodramatics and comes off as the lone caricature in a movie otherwise full of flesh-and-blood creations.
Making his writing and directing debut, Burrs Steers still needs a little work as a director, particularly when it comes to pacing, but that sin is easily forgivable when the dialogue is this good. Every conversation is note-prefect, balancing the absurdist humor of Wes Anderson and the pseudo-intellectual ramblings of Stanford’s Tadpole. In the end Igby is a creation who only knows he doesn’t want to be like the people around him. At the completion of his journey and his adolescence, Igby is no more certain of where he wants his life to lead than at the beginning. But then again, who is?