When I asked writer-director Burr Steers whether it would be accurate to describe his feature film debut as “a cross between Catcher in the Rye and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”, he found it to be a stretch (while it got hearty laughs from cast members Kieran Culkin and Amanda Peet, who also took part in the press conference at the Festival des Films du Monde, where “Igby” premiered) but still admitted: “Sure… Hey, they were both very successful so… You’d have to add The House of Atreus for the dysfunction, though.”
Kieran Culkin, coming off of his wonderful turn in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, stars as Igby Slocumb, a troubled 17 year old smart-ass who has been kicked out of most schools of the East Coast. To “What’s your major?”, he answers “Attitude”! His mother (Susan Sarandon, in a rare shrill performance) finally decides to send him to military school, but before long Igby goes on the lam to New York, where he crashes at the loft of Rachel (Amanda Peet), the artist mistress of his godfather (Jeff Goldblum). What follows is a series of encounters with colorful people that should but don’t contribute to Igby’s coming-of-age.
Steers’ screenplay really stacks the deck against Igby to make sure he “goes down”. His mom is a pill-popping hysteric, his father (Bill Pullman) is schizophrenic, his brother (Ryan Phillippe) is a greedy Young Republican, his godfather is an “obscenely rich parody”, and the junkies and drag queens he meets in New York are not much better. His only hope might be Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), a “nymphomaniac pseudo-bohemian Jewish American Princess”.
“Igby Goes Down” is somewhere between a disaffected drama and a black comedy, and while it balances uneasily between tones, it manages to be both funny and touching. It does suffer from first-film-syndrome, as Steers’ ambition exceeds his grasp. His film is populated with many interesting and quirky characters, but it sometimes feel like they’re all doing their own thing. The movie could have used a stronger, less disconnected narrative, and a more assured filmmaker could have made a more soulful and artistic picture out of this material. Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo, for instance, plays with some of the same themes but in a much more lyrical and powerful fashion.
Still, “Igby Goes Down” is as biting and funny as a Wes Anderson film (if nowhere near as achieved visually), and its cast alone makes it well worth seeing. I found Susan Sarandon a bit too over the top, but Bill Pullman is very affecting, Ryan Phillippe does the rich pretty boy asshole better than anyone and Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the hypocritical godfather. Amanda Peet is really good too in a not glamorous at all role, and it’s great to see Claire Danes back on screen (she hadn’t been in a movie since 1999’s “Brokedown Palace”). Then there’s Kieran Culkin, of course, who carries most of the film. He’s truly a promising actor, full of charm and wit and depth. I could see him filling the “Tobey Maguire niche” while Maguire is busy doing “Spider-Man” sequels. Altogether, these wonderful actors make “Igby Goes Down” closer to “Catcher in the Rye” than “Home Alone 2”, thankfully!
“Igby Goes Down” will be released in select cities on September 13, 2002.