I grew up in the lower reaches of the New Orleans middle class, and as a teen I always found myself a lot intimidated by kids from more prosperous families. They not only had things I did not; they also seemed to know things I did not. And though perhaps most didn't, many seemed to consider themselves superior, seemed to snicker together at inside jokes they knew I didn't get. Given that experience, I think I'm not the ideal audience for writer-director Burr Steers' Igby Goes Down, a self-satisfied black comedy about a poor little rich boy who feels a lot sorrier for himself than I do.
Igby Goes Down is the story of 17-year-old Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin), a child of wealth who'd be a true rebel without a cause except that he wouldn't want to stir himself to an actual act of rebellion. Igby's parents Mimi (Susan Sarandon) and Jason (Bill Pullman) are rich, and his godfather and especial benefactor D.H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum) is richer still. Unfortunately, Mimi is a narcissistic bitch, and Jason is a pusillanimous nut. Igby's rebuke is one of inaction rather than action. By doing nothing, he flunks out of a series of private schools. As desired, this gets his mother's goat, but in her determination to see her son graduate from high school, Mimi earns rather more sympathy from the viewer than the film itself seems to anticipate.
In hopes of instilling discipline, Mimi places Igby in a Midwestern military school, and for a time we think that experience will become the film's focus. But Igby's military days are few, and soon he's on the lam in Manhattan, sharing a pad with D.H.'s smack-shooting girlfriend Rachel (Amanda Peet). And, that quickly, Igby Goes Down seems to careen off track. A series of only barely connected episodes follow, none of which achieve necessary narrative depth or result in satisfying emotional revelation.
I need quickly concede that this film delivers a fair share of laughs, and for that reason it will attract defenders from those who enjoy the offbeat. Normally, I would count myself in that group. With its quirky characters and situations, this was definitely a picture I expected to like. I did enjoy a scene in which Igby goes to an irritable shrink who belts him instead of mildly tolerating Igby's insolent insults. And at first I chuckled at a development that leads Igby to peddle marijuana to his former art teacher (Cynthia Nixon). But the dope-dealing scene curdles the way the picture as whole ultimately does when we recognize the casual cruelty Igby practices as a kind of birthright. In the end, we just don't laugh often or hard enough to make up for this flick's bad aftertaste.
In addition, much of Igby Goes Down is immaturely made. It is careless about its details in the way that its main character is careless about his behavior. Older women keep throwing themselves at Igby sexually, but we haven't a clue why. He's nice enough looking, but he's no stud muffin, his body soft, his aspect mopey, his clothes slovenly, his personal hygiene suspect. Why would Rachel want to risk her sugar-daddy relationship with D.H. for a roll in the hay with the likes of Igby? (Of course, we haven't a clue what a man like D.H. is doing with a skank like Rachel in the first place.) More important, what does Bennington undergraduate Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes) see in Igby? And more important still, in the development that's supposed to be a heartbreaker, what does Sookie see in Igby's traitorous older brother Ollie (Ryan Phillippe)? Igby is an embittered cipher. But Ollie exudes all the evil of Satan while managing none of the charm.
This film seems to count on our sympathy for Igby solely because he's our focal character. We're expected to see his underachievement as an act of suffering. And we're supposed to know he's really contemplative and intelligent because he makes references to works of literature and philosophy that we never see him read. In fact, Igby's grasp of and prospective influence by the works he references remain as unconvincing as his right to so much self-pity. He is perhaps supposed to skewer Christianity when he invokes Jesus' belief in Heaven in order to sneer at the sacrifice of the Crucifixion, but instead reveals himself merely a theological cretin.
Igby Goes Down will inevitably invite comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, but J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield is a character who irritates us initially and ultimately wins our sympathy. Igby Slocumb is the opposite. The more we're around him, the more we agree with Ollie that if Mahatma Gandhi spent enough time with Igby, even he would want to give Igby a good slapping.
- Needing a good smack: Heroin addict Rachel (Amanda Peet) is curiously drawn to Igby (Kieran Culkin) in Igby Goes Down.