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By this time the 'coming of age' teen angst film has surpassed being a genre. It's become and institution. And while these types of movies have generally become hackneyed garbage, Occasionally one stands out and shines brighter than most of its peers. Look to 1999's RUSHMORE for a perfect example. Or better yet, look at this year's entry, IGBY GOES DOWN, a film that stands out on so many levels.
Last night wasn't supposed to be a movie night for me. I was content to sit back and drink a few beers and surf the net before going to bed, but thankfully my neighbor from down the hall hit me up to take care of her dog this weekend, and then suggested we see a movie that she needed to see for extra credit for one of her college classes. No problemo, said I, especially since she treated me to the movie as a thanks for taking care of her pup for her. Good thing I went, because I was quite pleased with the cinematic selection. I mean, I paid 7 bucks to see that piece of shit STEALING HARVARD, so it's exponentially a better situation to see something good for nary a dime. Almost validated the STEALING HARVARD thing. Okay, maybe not. I'll never get over that one.
So anyway, back to the subject at hand. IGBY GOES DOWN is the story of teenaged terror Igby Slocum, who is the product of a very interesting family life. His parents are a rather disturbed bunch, his mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) a domineering figure riddled with illness, and father Jason (Bill Pullman, in a deliberately withdrawn performance) a mentally disturbed alcoholic. On top of that, he's the complete opposite of his brother Oliver, played by Ryan Phillipe, who is an overachiever with nothing but money on his mind. With Igby's father long since confined to an asylum, he is overseen by his godfather D.H., played brilliantly by Jeff Goldblum. D.H. is the hero to Oliver, a successful businessman who is not shy about his extramarital affair with his nymphomaniacal tenant Rachel (Amanda Peet). He's also suprisingly sympathetic to Igby, who has managed to get kicked out of every prep school on the Eastern seaboard in his short time on the planet.
After leaving military school, he goes to work for D.H. where his life suddenly takes a turn for the interesting. He slums it for a while with Rachel, while sharing time with his brother in pursuit of the hand of Sookie, (Clare Danes), the beautiful but tragically flawed (the only argument she can muster for her attraction to Oliver is that they are 'close to the same age') object of his desire. His ultimate goal is to escape the life he's constructed for himself and the dullness of his locations (the movie takes place between New York, Chicago, and D.C., but it's always dreary and overcast) and remove himself to the other side of the world for an adolescent, sunny California.
IGBY is a film that could have so easily failed, which is why it's so pleasing to see it be so good on most levels. Burt Steers is a first-time writer-director, but there's no sign at all that this is the work of a novice. It's shot well, the mood is delivered without feeling forced, and it builds up with a believable and comfortable pace, even as the months whiz by. On top of that, the movie is hysterical when it tries to be, and tragic when it needs to be. Some well-timed sight gags and dialogue will make you laugh, some of the pain that comes through after the main character's mother passes on might make you cry. And at the same time, there are parts of the film where you can't tell what emotion to really feel. That's life, and it's portrayed beautifully in IGBY GOES DOWN. Of course, Steers also has to give credit to the actors in this piece, who are the ones who really help keep this thing above water. A movie like this can be as good as it wants to be technically and aesthetically, but without great, believable performances to push it along, it will drown.
Kieran Culkan is proving he's more than just the little brother of that Home Alone kid. He turns in a career-making performance here, taking the character of Igby and making him someone who, through all of his flaws and trouble, is absolutely a charmer who has played that up to his advantage his whole life. But we also see the dark underneath he's hiding. The hatred from his mother feels less like generic teen angst, but more a result of her rejection for him outright. Igby definitely favors his tortured father, which is ironic considering a later revelation in the film. It will be a crime if Culkan is ignored at Oscar time.
The other person who should definitely draw the eye of the Academy is Goldblum, who brings an amiable flavor to the part of Igby's godfather. Like Igby, he's just charming enough to get by, but just devious enough to want to dislike. The irony is that Oliver looks up to D.H., when Igby is the one that seems to be more cut from the same cloth. D.H. is bold, he's scheming, and always seems to be able to throw money at all his problems. And yet he's still likeable.
The other performances that round out this film are also good to great. Phillipe pulls off the smarmy young aristocrat that he played in CRUEL INTENTIONS tenfold, as a few years under his belt have greatly improved him as an actor. Pullman, even with only a few minutes of screen time, conveys the meltdown of Igby's father enough to make you understand just where he's coming from. Clare Danes and Amanda Peet avoid being one-dimensional stereotypes, which is due to a great script as well as their believeable performances. Sarandon is actually the only big name in the film whose performance doesn't truly stick out as something spectacular, but her Mimi doesn't really call for that much effort, and she does exactly what she needs to do to play the character right. Even Jared Harris turns in a memorable performance in a small role as Rachel's drug-dealing, sexually ambiguous artist friend Russell.
It's easy to fuck up a film like this. It's not hard to make it feel jumbled, contrived, pretentious, ambiguous, or trite. But somehow Steers and the band of performers under his wing manage to pull this one off while avoiding the above problems. And while this is Movie Criticism for the Retarded, and I should be writing this with a tongue-in-cheek profanity-laced know-it-all point of view, I just couldn't. I just genuinely liked a movie, and had to give my recommendation. So sue me. Or send me feedback. Whatever. Just go see it.
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