Igby (Kieran Culkin) is a too-cool, wealthy and dissatisfied teenager, on a mission to get kicked out of as many high schools as possible. He quips that his older, socially perfect brother, Ollie (Ryan Phillippe), is majoring in “neo-fascism” (Ollie prefers to call it economics) at Columbia. And he likes to call his “valley of the dolls” socially taut and loveless mother (Susan Sarandon) Mimi because, “‘Heinous One’ is a bit cumbersome, and Medea was already taken.”
Igby’s a malcontent, surrounded by a rich and rotten, sympathy-calloused family (those who are sane, anyway) and teachers with inferior intelligence. He’s rich but he’s cool because he rebels, right? But whether he knows it or not, he’s only playing a rebel, like a necessary — but ultimately ineffectual — dynamic in his family makeup.
This could be news to first-time director and writer Burr Steers, nephew of Gore Vidal. Steers makes sure to surround Igby with hypocrisy — and to prove it, the main character points this out often, as if Igby (and Steers too) watched The Graduate too many times and is confusing Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) intense travails with his own.
Unlike Mike Nichols, Steers is afraid, or just incapable, of letting Igby go to any really dark place, so he brushes it over with snappy interchanges among the fashionable, beautiful and cynical, hoping the title of his film will convince us of the emotional plummet. Steers lures us into false shocks, like the “end at the beginning” first scene.
In a stately, high-end bedroom, two well-dressed young men listen to their mother’s discordant snores while they sit on the end of her bed. Ollie complains about how their mother has “built up a tolerance to everything.” Igby retorts, “It’s all the fucking tennis.” The two put a bag over her head, tie an elegant scarf around the loose end, and her snores depart, leaving the jolly ballroom music hovering in the background. The scene causes a contrived reaction; just why he’s trying to pull one over on us is a question the class clown can possibly answer. Maybe it’s to distract us from Igby’s rebel-without-a-clue disposition, and his occasional, and unsatisfying, bursts of angst.
Although all the environmental-emotional elements encourage (or coerce) us toward empathizing with the poor rich boy, we find ourselves more and more detached from him as he’s staring out at us, misbegotten and bigger than life. With all the waif situations he goes out of his way to slip into, Igby seems to cope “just as well as” or “better than” anybody else. He never really goes “down,” he only goes through the motions, and/or dialogue, like when he stares at himself in the mirror, repeating the lines his schizophrenic father uttered just before his psyche collapsed: “I feel this great pressure coming down on me ... crushing me.” Igby imagines his dad is there, but he’s not, in any way. In the next scene, Igby is on a roof with his girlfriend, Sookie (Claire Danes), happily dropping water balloons onto unsuspecting sidewalkers while he moans about how his father gave himself to the system, and all he got in return was the Maryland Home for the Befuddled.
Igby Goes Down breaks away from hypocrisy into the big city with hip rock music, and pro-drugs/anti-establishment sentiments, but unlike the ’60s film auras it strives to embody, it never experiences the crisis it thinks it does, like a spoiled brat. Igby uses his mother’s credit card to get away from military school. He lives off Rachel (Amanda Peet), who in turn is living off Igby’s filthy-rich godfather (Jeff Goldblum). And like its protagonist, the film is parasitic, living off the hypocritical, appearance- and money-driven class of high society it thinks it’s pointing a finger at.
For what they are, the whole cast shines as much as they can in this “island of lost toys,” but the one true oasis of humanity is Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) as Russell the performance artist. Smoldering in eyeliner and a plush, red fur sweater, he thwarts the military school lackey looking for Igby with stage-high drama and sea-deep sensitivity: “Anne Frank, Anne Frank — the soldiers are gone, come out and play.”
Only death makes everyone, and the movie, a little human, but it doesn’t completely save their sorry rich asses. What you end up with is an attractive, quick-witted but ultimately vacuous coming-of-age movie that never actually comes of age, no matter what the director wants us to believe.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak; call 248-542-0180).
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.