Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 26, 2002
Igby Goes Down\r\nStarring Kieran Culkin and Claire Danes. Written and directed by Burr Steers. Rated R.
About a Boy

Kieran Culkin rages on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in Igby Goes Down.


Does this sound familiar? Igby Goes Down is a movie that features a) a severely dysfunctional privileged Manhattan family, b) sharp, clever comic writing, c) a gallery of bizarre characters portrayed by a deep cast, d) eccentric high style in its décor and costumes, and e) a contemporary story illustrated with retro-hip soft rock. So what makes this movie different from The Royal Tenenbaums? The key is that Wes Anderson’s comedy was centered on the family’s dying patriarch, whereas the newer film, built around a 17-year-old bad boy, replaces Anderson’s wistfulness with a particular kind of rage. It’s a less artful film, but it’s more powerful.

Jason “Igby” Slocumb Jr. (Kieran Culkin) is no ordinary bad boy. He’s the worst kind of bad boy — wealthy, smart, well-read, arrogant, and angry at the world. His anger stems partly from being raised largely by his ice-cold mom (Susan Sarandon) after his dad (Bill Pullman) suffers a nervous breakdown. You learn all you need to know about her parenting technique from her furious reaction to Igby’s getting expelled from his umpteenth prep school: “Did you ever once stop to consider how this would reflect on me?” Igby resolutely defeats every attempt to straighten him out; the ritual beatings he incurs at military school only harden his attitude, and he adopts such a patronizing tone toward a psychotherapist that the shrink starts hitting him upside the head. Igby’s older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) sums it up rather well: “I think if Gandhi had to hang out with you for an extended period of time, he’d wind up kicking the shit out of you.” The loosely structured film follows his darkly comic misadventures as he bounces around Manhattan’s Upper East Side, his life filled with casual drug use, manipulation of his relatives, and sex with various older women, including his godfather’s mistress (Amanda Peet).

It’s another sex partner who best understands Igby, though. That’s Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), a funkily dressed Bennington student taking a semester off, and the most levelheaded character in the film. Igby spots her at a cocktail party, and their first exchange leaves no doubt as to why he’s attracted to her.

Igby: Are you someone’s daughter?

Sookie: Of course I’m someone’s daughter.

Igby: No, I mean, are you the daughter of someone at the party?

Sookie: No. I’m with the catering company. Why do you think I’m dressed like a figure skater?

The movie is full of brilliant exchanges of dialogue that come from writer/director Burr Steers, a sometime actor (Pulp Fiction, The Last Days of Disco) and full-time nephew of author Gore Vidal. This is his first venture into filmmaking, and it’s a galvanizing debut. His writing is funny and his candy-colored visual style is assured, but he also has a unique and fully developed voice. For all the movie’s surface resemblances to The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s more akin to Ghost World in its portrayal of Igby’s lack of direction. Steers obviously knows the Manhattan milieu from personal experience, and his expertise lends the film a great deal of authenticity.

You can’t say enough about the performances he gets from his cast. If you’ve forgotten where Danes has been, this film is a great re-introduction to her quizzical intelligence and energy. She’s terrific here. As Igby’s philandering business tycoon of a stepdad, Jeff Goldblum has never been smarmier. Perhaps most amazing of all is Phillippe, delivering his lines in a perfect channeling of George Plimpton. This is the first performance of his that ever made me laugh. (Out loud. On more than one occasion.) Pullman is vividly tragic as Igby’s affectionate but mentally broken dad. The depth of talent even shows in a nice bit of luxury casting: When Igby gets a job as a drug courier, the married couple buying from him is played by Eric Bogosian and Cynthia Nixon.

Still, this film rises or falls with Kieran Culkin, and he stands tall. He showed some talent earlier this year as a Catholic-school bad boy in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, but this performance is far more focused and integrated. Igby’s adolescent tumult manifests itself in bratty, intellectually charged sarcasm, and, without sentimentalizing the character, Culkin does full justice to both the kid’s polished exterior wit and the bruised psyche that he keeps hidden. When Sookie goes off with Oliver (a plot development the movie doesn’t adequately explain — the film’s most serious flaw), Igby’s wounded feelings find vent in a frenzied yet hyperarticulate outburst that details with blood-freezing clarity what her future will be like with his brother. It’s an extremely difficult scene to play, and he carries it off effortlessly. He’s not done after that, though. The climactic scene brings Igby to terms with his mother’s legacy, and his anger erupts in a savage act of sorrow that’ll leave you both appalled and moved. His performance and the vision of Burr Steers make Igby Goes Down a profound and profoundly funny character study.

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