Warning: this review has one of those naughty words you’re not allowed to say on TV. Read at your own risk.
Movies like Igby Goes Down always amaze me. It’s a movie without a plot. It’s a movie about a character who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. It’s a movie about nothing, and about doing nothing. What’s amazing is that these scripts ever get written and produced. Who except Fellini could even get away with squandering a feature film budget on a movie that doesn’t even tell a story?
No, I’m not actually that square. I don’t believe every movie has to have a plot and tell a story. In fact, I liked Igby Goes Down very much. I just don’t understand the creative process that goes into such a thing, which makes me respect it all the more.
All in the Family
R for language, sex, drugs
Igby (Kieran Culkin) is born to an upper class family in Connecticut. He hates his mother (Susan Sarandon), although it feels more like stifled rebellion than hatred. Both his parents are distant and troubled. Both would rather send Igby away to boarding school or military school than actually raise the boy themselves. When he’s young, Igby’s dad (Bill Pullman) goes crazy as Igby watches.
Igby’s older brother (Ryan Philippe) is occasionally a friend, but more often a tormentor. Where Igby doesn’t like the baggage of coming from wealth, his brother relishes his role as a rich brat.
If Igby’s immediate family isn’t enough cause for frustration, his godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) steps in as a surrogate father for Igby. It’s a nice gesture, but D.H. is a rich businessman with more public indiscretions than Bill Clinton, and Igby “hates” him too.
Much like Holden Caulfield, Igby leaves yet another school. Rather than go home to his mother and be sent off yet again, he decides to crash in New York wherever he can, wandering the streets, making friends, trying to figure things out.
The Kid is Alright
Rather than being about what happens, Igby Goes Down is about Igby’s ennui. The sadness of the idle rich shouldn’t really draw much sympathy — he is living in a world of wealth and ease after all. But there is boredom and friendlessness and a sense of not belonging that speaks to anyone who’s ever been a teenager.
Outside of his depression is a sharp, sarcastic wit and a literate intelligence that makes him more likeable and sympathetic. Several examples spring to mind. We overhear the tail end of a conversation at a meeting with his mother and the dean of a Catholic school, where Igby asks, “if heaven is such a wonderful place that how can getting crucified be such a big fucking deal?” When his family asks him how military school is going, he tells stories from Patton about seeing his best friend’s face get blown off.
Kieran Culkin gives an outstanding performance as Igby. He has enough charm and smarts to make his character likeable, and enough of a childish fragility to win your sympathy when necessary. Should Igby Goes Down get a wide release, it could mark the start of a brilliant career for Culkin.
My complaints about the film have more to do with my audience than with the movie itself, although the movie is not completely blameless.
The problem is that my audience didn’t seem to go deep. It was happy with the surface explanations. Take the flaming homosexual nurse who jokes with Igby’s mother about not popping too many pills. My audience roared at the comedy in this scene, as though they completely missed the sad subtext of a woman with a real problem. And in several places, the music (by Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen) lightens an already lighthearted mood, making Igby Goes Down seem like a comedy.
But Igby Goes Down is not a comedy, it’s bittersweet, and I wanted to savor that flavor. Culkin’s performance is so good that I wanted to get into his character, to have a relationship with the film, to really see what makes him tick. The laugh track of a full auditorium ended up distracting me from the serious parts, the sad parts, and ultimately detracting from the movie.
Igby Goes Down is that truly rare movie that I wish I had seen at home, on video, instead of in a theater.