Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:12 pm 
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Holden Caulfield grows up into the new century in a witty and sad first film

A few years ago David Foster Wallace wrote an essay to prove that irony was dead: but he's from the Midwest and has returned there. 'Igby Goes Down' is drenched in the old-fashioned ironic East Coast sensibility, and I've got news for Mr. Wallace: irony's alive and well and bursting from the mind of Burr Gore Steers. Steers, who wrote and directed this movie, is four years younger than Wallace, and maybe irony was reborn in that period of time, or maybe it's just a geographic and social thing.

Burr Steers has had very minor roles in a number of interesting films -- he left his upperclass Washington, D.C., background to live in Hollywood some years ago and had something to do with 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' -- but what's more important is that his mother was an Auchincloss and he's Gore Vidal's nephew: Vidal plays an episcopal prelate in the movie. That relationship hints at a background sufficiently patrician to acquaint Steers with prep schools and the Upper East Side and the Hamptons, all of which figure in the screwed up old money world of what turns out to be a quite autobiographical tale. Steers's is also the venue of Whit Stillman, one of whose films, 'The Last Days of Disco,' the director played in. The Upper East Side is the scene of the recent 'Tadpole,' another coming-of-age film, too, but Tadpole looks awfully sweet and naïve next to Igby and his world is far more benign, and relatively superficial. 'Igby' digs pretty deep, and Steers has mined his own life and his patrician family's milieu to devastating effect in this memorable first film.

Right away we're plunged by 'Igby' into scenes of family insanity and cruelty where rules are set only to be bent -- these are scenes of delicious meanness and wit. Igby and his older brother Oliver (a slick, supercilious Ryan Phillippe) are offing their mother before the opening credits. It's only later that we learn she was dying of cancer and was complicit in the offing.

Igby's father (Jason Slocum, played by a scarily shutdown, wigged-out Bill Pullman) is a sad and touching alcoholic seen in flashbacks becoming mentally unhinged before the boy's eyes when he's still small (played in these scenes by the youngest Culkin, Rory, who was so sharp in 'You Can Count on Me': what a family!). By the time of the present action, Jason Slocum has been institutionalized.

Igby's godfather, 'D.H.,' is his mother's lover, but this gentleman has a much younger heroin addict mistress. Jeff Goldblum as D.H. Baines has the right combination of looks for this character, whose role is pivotal for all the action. His impressive height and magnificent bearing set off crudity of physiognomy, a visage baked à la George Hamilton (at the Hamptons, of course) perfect for the obscenely rich 'D.H.,' a crass but commanding Trump-like developer who has an aristocratic guest list. Goldblum gives us a complex character here, a man who's equally charming and cruel, fastidious and brutal, an immensely polished, scary creature whose nastiness is surprisingly modulated and subtle.

Susan Sarandan does a selfless and very polished and witty turn as the bitchy Mimi, the boy's pill-popping mother, who's just this side of hellish. She may not be 'Mommie Dearest,' but she's only called Mimi, Igby says, 'because Medea was already taken' and 'Heinous One is a bit cumbersome.' Her behavior and her fate make one think of Sunny von Bülow in Barbet Schroeder's 'Reversal of Fortune': there are crossovers of the two worlds. But Sarandan, while far from her usual admirable, crusading woman roles, isn't chilly and mannered like Glenn Close in Schroeder's movie.

Kieran Culkin is the major reason why this well written script plays so effectively. As Igby, this coolest of the Culkin boys is able to deliver his precocious bons mots with devastating ease and still seem soft and vulnerable enough to be simpatico, and pretty enough to justify all the women who're after him. Igby is not only a witty schoolboy dropout but a wounded survivor of a terrible family who laughs to deal with his pain. Kieran Culkin has the deftness and edge to carry all this off. The young actor makes a quantum leap from his interesting but smaller part as the Catholic school misfit in 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' to his role here.

Igby gets free sex not only with 'D.H.'s' mistress Rachel (the striking-looking Amanda Peet) but with a Bennington dropout he encounters catering at D'H.'s summer place (this is where the poshness gets laid on thickest in human terms and where we see the women drooling over Igby the most). She's Sookie Saperstein, played with quiet panache by Claire Danes, and he's soon wild about her, but the trouble is she's four or five years older than he is and at their ages that's a lot of years. (By the way, Culkin, Sarandan, Danes, and Peet were all born in New York.) He also escapes from school and gets to live in a lovely redone loft where he has time to ponder his 'options' and enjoy several attractive women. In this world, the nightmare has its perks.

Igby pays a price for them, though: he's constantly getting smacked, knocked down, his nose bloodied: the boy takes a beating. Igby does indeed go down. But the movie, which is very funny but also very sad, is more about emotional suffering than physical. For all the cuffing he gets, it's the things people say that hurt him most. He's devastated when after his mother's death Sookie, who's ditched him in the sack for Oliver, refuses to run off to California with him, as she'd promised to do at first. Like his creator, he has to fly away to the West Coast alone. As the movie ends, he's experienced hard knocks Holden Caulfield only imagined, but he's survived.

Something about the funereal humor and the nastiness of this movie made me think of 'Harold and Maude.' The boldness and relish with which its bent worldview is expressed suggests a possibility of similar cult status ahead. This may be too sophisticated and specialized a movie for the general audience, but it has a lot of heart as well as a lot of brains and it's an equally impressive writing and directing debut for Burr Steers. (September 24, 2002)

©Chris Knipp 2002

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