View Full Version : Igby: a sophisticated, witty film with heart

Chris Knipp
09-24-2002, 04:10 AM
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 naEe 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 Ela 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 BEow 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. He's 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 Secret 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 City.) 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, and he's just barely survived.

Something about the funereal humor and the joyful 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. There are only a few American movies so far this year that have seemed this good.

09-26-2002, 01:44 AM
I recall hearing someone coming out of the theater, saying that Igby was a very ironic film. Perhaps, like most modern members of our society, "irony" has been conflated with "sarchasm..." This was an extremely literal film, ripping content from angst-ridden chestnuts like "Catcher in the Rye." You hear it in Igby's dialogue, when he discusses going on his "Razor's Edge journey."

To be considered irony, the actual meaning must be the the opposite of the literal meaning. So, to call Igby ironic, we must first establlish its meaning, which is no easy task... Maybe to a particular audience this film has a clear meaning. I certainly cannot speak for all viewers, but to this particular viewer, Igby was a self-indulgent exploration of self-indulgent people. Jeff Goldblum was stereotypical, sleazy Wall Street type, and Ryan Phillippe was his stereotypical groupie, complete with stereotypical rich snob accent which was not 100% reliable. Amanda Peet was Edie Sedgwick, magically transported out of her time and thrown into 2002. So, lo and behold, Claire Danes was left to fill the predicated stereotypical bohemian vegetarian hipster who rolls joints in the park and sleeps with sequential brothers with no apparent care for "old-fashined" repercussions.

Had this movie been made in the 1960s, it may have been relevant. And, based on that era's standards, it may have even been seen as ironic. But in a post-Watergate America, our connotations and ideas are not what they were in the films and books Igby steals from -- er... "pays homage to." Ask yourself this... what does this film MEAN? What is its message?

Igby does not change. He has a moment of catharsis, but ultimately proves that he is the same self-indulgent Igby he always was...

I've read and heard reviews speak of this film as a skewering of the elite. But are they skewered? Is it only the elite? Danes and Peet are hardly the elite, but they are subject to narrative scorn. And Sarandon's character is revealed and redeemed in the end. So the literal message, at least in the eyes of this viewer, is that growing up is hard, and rich people face their own challenges. This may have been revolutionary and controversial in the context of a culture leaving the I Like Ike 50s, but in our day it is a retread of a retread of a familiar idea.

The Graduate had an extremely ironic ending that made it not only watchable but brilliant. Here we have the glorified Hollywood ending: a couple who found each other against the odds. And yet, you can read it on both of their faces... "Umm... And now what?" Igby completely lacks any such sense of irony. So, coming to us not as an ironic tale but as a literal tale, is there still something to hold onto? In my opinion, precious little. Sarandon and Pullman are strong, but under-utilized. The rest of the cast rings false. Jeff Goldblum, in fact, seems to be playing Cary Grant playing his character. Perhaps that is because they play characters who have not had real-life counterparts for decades. Or, in the spirit of generosity, perhaps these characters can, in fact, only be found in nooks and crannies of the East Coast. But if this latter is the case, I feel safe in saying that the material does not translate outside their tight circle. In either a literal or an ironic sense.

10-06-2002, 09:10 AM
Interesting view, modhatter. I think what you're saying hits on why I'm reluctant to see this movie. It does seem that many movies today try to achieve some sort of "hipness" by trying to come off as ironic, when actually they don't really get beyond mere sarcasm. It's the easy way out, I guess. And actually, maybe the only ironic thing, as you alluded to, is that there is no literal meaning in the first place.

I also agree that the ending of "The Graduate" is brilliant in its irony. It's really a pretty dark, pessimistic movie, masquarding as a light comedy.

10-14-2002, 02:39 AM
Igby failed to engage me on any level, and left me feeling completely empty. The characters were weak stereotypes, and Culkin's great acting barely pulled this bore out of the gutter. I would not recommend it to anyone. Just read Catcher In The Rye again.

10-23-2002, 02:31 PM
Nothing new or unique about this movie. But, Kieran Culkin is a charm as the lead character.

Chris Knipp
09-15-2003, 11:18 PM
Sorry you guys didn't like Igby. I don't think reading Catcher in the Rye again is a substitute. I found Burr Steers' script very knowing and sophisticated and as you seem to agree, Culkin knows how to deliver his lines. Goldblum, Phillippe, Sarandon, and the others all turn in excellent performances. This is a special wavelength and not everyone's on it, but I've have found I'm not alone in finding this a very clever, and moving, evocation of the bored eastern preppie experience which is more up to date than the Salinger novel, but may make more sense to a 30- or 40-something than to a 20-something. When you say something is stereotypical, you may sinply be plugging a stereotype into something really more specific and missing the specificities that are there. If one thing is certain, it is that Burr Steers knows whereof he speaks. You may not like it, but he's got it down. He was there. Archetypal, yeah, but stereotypical, nah. This isn't a skewering of the elite, I'd agree. It comes from within. Irony (and this is ironic) is a kind of acceptance. Revolution is unironic. Ibgy Goes Down isn't revolutionary.

modhatter: I appreciate your taking the time to go into some detail, but I think you're dead wrong on Goldblum. It's a magnificent performance, and way, way far away from Cary Grant. You say
Or, in the spirit of generosity, perhaps these characters can, in fact, only be found in nooks and crannies of the East Coast. But if this latter is the case, I feel safe in saying that the material does not translate outside their tight circle. In either a literal or an ironic sense.

That's right. It does come very much from deep inside "nooks and crannies of the East Coast." That's why I like it so much. It spoke for experiences I never thought I'd see on the screen so well evoked. But it's also good. Unfortunately you don't quite seem to see that. . . .yet.