Igby Goes Down

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 09/12/02 14:15:46

"Igby doesn't go that far down."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There is no way to avoid comparing this film to Catcher in the Rye and American Beauty. The film borrows the appealing draw of those two works and then doesn’t add much of its own to fill in the blanks. Kieren Culkin plays Igby, a Holden-like character who seems to be pretty unaffected by his traumatic life. Igby won’t stay in school and its no wonder he just runs from authority and from his family. They are pathologically dysfunctional and their wealth only exacerbates their inability to develop healthy relationships. Igby has no models to work from and when he runs away to the city, you expect him to knock on the back door of the Plaza Hotel because he just wouldn’t know where to go.

When Igby was a child, he witnesses his dad (Bill Pullman) having a psychotic break. His mother (Susan Sarandon) remarries and his father spends the rest of his life in an Asylum. Igby has a difficult relationship with his step-father (Jeff Goldblum), who blatantly parades his mistress (Amanda Peet) around. His mother has terminal cancer and when Igby is required to help euthanize her, he follows through numbly. He doesn’t exactly register much emotion while his mother makes the whole event seem as innocuous as washing the dishes.

Since they are wealthy and well-connected, the murder/suicide is conveniently recorded as a natural death and life without beurocratic consequences continues along its merry way.

Ryan Phillipe plays Igby’s older, snobbish brother headed for Wall Street who tries to corral Igby back into the family fold. The last life Igby wants is as a spoiled trust fund Ameristocrat. The two brothers have an uneasy, if nonexistent relationship.

The performances are great. The scenes themselves are good to watch, but the film had little overall impact. The boho fantasy of a Hampton rebel lacked a certain reality. I cringed every time I saw that big beautiful wasted loft inhabited by Igby’s Step-father’s mistress and her louche, Eddie Izzard-like drag queen lover surviving off kickdown’s messily gained. You could run from one end to the other.

The writer/director Burr Steers who grew up in the wealthy enclave depicted in the film has tried to draw a bridge between class privilege and the streets of Manhattan. But it’s hard to be accepted as a rebel when your life has had nothing but privilege. Igby may end up having to survive by his wits after alienating himself from his family, but he will always have social connections that will allow him back “in” should he decide his wayward adventure isn’t cutting it.

Watching him walk through those closing doors is pretty spectacular. I would have hoped for more resoluteness though. Some kind of dramatic finality that let you know that he can ONLY go out into the unknown.

Steers said, “The real tragedy of this story as that two people from different classes will never develop a relationship.” I think the real tragedy of this story is that it’s intended audience would be the least bit sympathetic with Igby. Aristotle, in his theory of tragedy, wrote that tragic figures have to be larger than life, Royalty or Aristocracy, because their fortune or misfortune end up affecting the wider population. But with Death of a Salesman, we saw that the personal tragedy of a traveling salesman could have the same emotional impact as Macbeth or Oedipus.

IGBY GOES DOWN vacillates between the two. With stories of people in power, the conflict has to be about idealism and wide impact. The background is too large and auspicious to waste on what amounts to pornography. The moments in the film are worthwhile – the psychotic break, killing his mother, girlfriend on a heroin binge in the bathroom, nodding out with her panties around her ankles, but they don’t serve a larger story. When Igby goes down, I want his whole world to go down with him, but it doesn’t.

There is no descent into despair or helplessness or madness. Igby starts in a pretty low place already but for him, its all part of his normal, day to day life. He's just lost in his world, and that can make him an interesting observer, like Edith Wharton, if he manages to find a way to make his social situation work for him. He's a victim and his situation is pathetic, but there is little compelling motion that challenges or forges his character.

The rich are not like you and me. They live in a world apart with many many buffers between them and the unpleasantness of having to struggle for a living. Any emotional turmoil is a pity, but it hardly feels tragic. The scenario is almost cartoonish. I would be more interested in Igby the character if he ran away from an abusive, alcoholic, working class home and went to New York to write or create art.

Or if he ended up in some struggle for the family fortune with his step-father and his desire to destroy the family wealth is tempered when he learns what would happen to your every day working person if he drove an important company to ruin. When he finally ends up with on the street with no money of his own and he’s had his degraded heroin addict love interest taken away from him by his mean spirited estranged brother, I just didn’t care.

I didn’t really feel he was without options and I would have liked to see more of his inner life expressed. After all, he’s had an incredibly traumatic life and he responds to it by being shut down and moping a lot. I wish he could have found a way to express his sense of injustice, at least, if not find someone to confide his feelings in. I wanted to know what was going on with Igby but he kept it all to himself.

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