Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Burr Steers

Cast: Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Amanda Peet, Bill Pullman, Jared Harris

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexuality and drug content)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 9/13/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The characters of Igby Goes Down exist in their own little world that has the trappings of perfection and the dark underbelly, both distorted in a way to make them comical. They are physical extensions of their environment, maintaining outward appearances as things are falling apart under the surface. The film is also about the want and need to escape, as the titular main character finds a variety of ways to stay off the path of privilege—on one level as a simple statement of rebellion but on a deeper level because he knows what it does to people and is afraid of suffering the same fate. His existence is comprised of one passive-aggressive action after another. Writer/director Burr Steers balances skewed reality and a pervading humanism to give his characters depth where there would only seem to be caricature. This is Steers’ first film, and already he shows an impressive gift for developing quirky characters and setting in a streamlined fashion, a la wunderkind Wes Anderson. Igby Goes Down is a highly personal look at the effects of living a dysfunctionally privileged lifestyle, and by the end, we only wish we could have spent more time in its world.

Igby Slocum (Kieran Culkin) is a perennial misfit. He’s never adjusted to or cared about school. So after failing and being booted out of a parochial school (he questions how Jesus’ crucifixion was such a big deal if heaven is such a nice place), his mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) calls his bluff and sends him to military school. His experience there isn’t too encouraging, but there is always the summer. Over break, Igby takes a job with D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), his godfather. His job allows him to meet his godfather’s mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet) and an oddly named Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), but once it’s time to head off to another prep school, Igby makes a dash for freedom at Rachel’s apartment in Manhattan, where he’s introduced to her and her eccentric friend Russell’s (Jared Harris) artsy ways. The deal is that as long as D.H. never finds out, Igby is free to crash there. Igby meets up with Sookie again, and a relationship forms. On the other side of the Igby’s world, Mimi enlists Igby’s older brother and young Republican Ollie (Ryan Phillippe) to find out where he’s at and get him back on the right track.

The film is an episodic piece, tied together by Igby’s relatively aimless wandering and attempts to free himself of his family. Steers’ script is a gem, full of bright, vibrant dialogue and many great one-liners.  The humor is just right—sarcastic and apathetic. Steers primarily uses the characters to establish his high class world, and the satire that comes with the territory is much more effective as a result. Each of these people represents something about the lifestyle. D.H. embodies hypocrisy, as he flirts with his mistress at a party where his wife is present. In one scene, Igby literally catches him with his pants down, and seeing Jeff Goldblum as D.H., pants around his ankles, trying to figure out which is worse—that Igby has caught him or that Igby can get into Rachel’s apartment—is hilarious. Rachel serves another important role; she’s only part of this life by association. As such, she must keep up appearances. One scene has her cleaning up for a dinner with D.H., including covering up track marks from numerous intravenous injections. An even better example of this element is Mimi, who maintains her exterior look as her interior decays from cancer.

Then there’s Igby himself, who is defined by subconscious and self-imposed detachment from his world. The whole film is about Igby ostracizing himself from his family. The question is why? At the heart of Igby’s story is his fear of becoming like his namesake father (no, Igby is not his real name), Jason Slocum (Bill Pullman). In a series of flashbacks, we learn about the father’s decline into schizophrenia. Outbursts at the dinner table are only the beginning. It seems that time has taken hold of Mr. Slocum, or perhaps it’s merely his inability to handle the lifestyle. Either way, Igby sees himself heading down this spiral, and the only way to avoid it is to rebel. On the other hand, perhaps Igby’s rebellion is merely the first step. What’s interesting in Steers’ structuring of the film is that it starts off a sardonic little comedy and eventually becomes quite moving. Events and people that at first seemed amusing become very human and very real, yet Steers still manages to keep the film’s sense of humor intact as the whole thing develops. By the end, we find ourselves saddened for characters whom we didn’t think we would (Ollie, who suddenly finds himself in a position of giant responsibility) and hopeful for the characters who seemed lost from the start (Igby).

The cast is truly an ensemble effort, and each actor finds the right edge for their respective character. Bill Pullman’s role is quite small but that says nothing of the impression he leaves on the course of the film. It’s an incredibly vital part, and Pullman endows it with an infinite melancholy. Goldblum gives one of his best performances as D.H., who just oozes a kind of elitist chicanery. Amanda Peet’s Rachel starts off a pretty menial character, but as the film gives her more to do, Peet also manages to show us the inherent sadness of her character in this environment. Ryan Phillippe is also very good as the cocky and assured brother, and Susan Sarandon has a relatively small but incredibly funny part. The film rests on Kieran Culkin’s shoulders, though, and he handles himself incredibly well. This is a very tricky role—make no mistake about it—but the young Culkin elicits warmth for his cynical misanthrope in a great performance.

For some reason, Igby Goes Down has been compared to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; some have even gone as far as to say that the film is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the novel we may ever get. Well, that’s only minimally true (the main characters both failed out of prep school and have incredibly cynical outlooks on life), but to limit the film as even a loose adaptation would be unfair. Igby Goes Down creates its own world, and I’m extremely grateful to have been introduced to it.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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