Judge Bryan Byun is bored and disaffected with bored and disaffected teenager movies.
Insanity is relative.
Burr Steers (the Flock of Seagulls guy in Pulp Fiction) made his directorial debut in 2002 with Igby Goes Down, a bleak teen-angst comedy laden with more than a few echoes of The Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, Steers seems to have picked mostly the really, really annoying echoes.
Facts of the Case
Igby (Kieran Culkin) is a troubled teen. Coming from a wealthy East Coast family, you'd think he'd have it made, but he's saddled with one of the most dysfunctional families in the long cinematic tradition of dysfunctional families: a self-absorbed, emotionally frigid mother (Susan Sarandon); a schizophrenic, institutionalized father (Bill Pullman); and an amoral shark of a brother (Ryan Phillipe). What's a poor little rich kid to do when the world becomes too much for him? Why, if he's read J.D. Salinger, which Igby clearly has, the solution is to run away and wander aimlessly around New York, having lots of Salingeresque adventures.
In keeping with the film's aspirations toward becoming a postmillennial Catcher in the Rye, we see young, disaffected Igby run a familiar gauntlet of upper-class twits and phonies, commenting on them all with the requisite snarky sarcasm, before escaping into Manhattan and taking up with an equally disaffected student (Claire Danes) and his godfather's kept woman (Amanda Peets)—who, of course, is also disaffected.
Igby is very much designed to appeal to a certain elitist mindset. Neophyte writer-director Burr Steers devotes the entirety of his film to pandering to the kind of self-impressed, pseudointellectual hipsters who will no doubt connect with the sullen title character, who spouts a steady stream of arch, unbearably "witty" observations. This film is little more than a two-hour sneer.
Igby is a tiresome kid, and Igby Goes Down is a tiresome movie. Perhaps a director with a more critical eye could have made this film more palatable, but Steers is so obviously in love with his own cleverness that it's simply taken for granted that we'll be fascinated with the travails of a spoiled teenaged jerk. If there's a lasting legacy of the past several years, I'm hoping it'll include the demise of movies where you're asked to care about the oh-so-tragic ennui of characters who have never known a day of real suffering in their lives.
Not that there's anything inherently offensive about tales of wealthy Manhattanites. Woody Allen's been mining that ground for decades with often brilliant results, and Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, a film teeming with young, pretentious socialites, manages to humanize and elicit sympathy for its characters without pandering or flaunting a snarkier-than-thou attitude. Metropolitan works where this film fails in that Stillman, unlike Steers, is all too aware of what shallow and meaningless lives his protagonists lead. Stillman shows us the vulnerability behind these kids who have had it so easy that they don't know how to be the adults they aspire to become. Writer-directors like Allen and Stillman, and Wes Anderson, whose vastly superior Rushmore this film superficially resembles, may observe their subjects with a critical, sardonic eye, but they're never mean-spirited; there's an essential compassion and sympathy for human nature underlying even the darkest moments.
In lieu of compassion, Steers can offer only glib hostility towards easy targets, and endless pages of the kind of "quirky" dialogue never spoken by actual people. Eventually you're too tired of the movie showing you how knowing and hip it is to care much about the characters. It's like spending two hours with one of those vain, self-absorbed types who's always telling you stories about how they one-upped someone or how stupid everything is. After a while you realize that they're mostly trying to convince themselves that they're as superior as they try to appear.
MGM's DVD release of Igby Goes Down offers a decent, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The transfer offers a rich, clean image, although the print is marred by occasional specks and minor defects. While sound is not the focus of this character-based film, the DVD features a subdued but crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track.
Bonus features include an audio commentary by Steers and Culkin (which is either informative and entertaining, or informative and barely tolerable, depending on your feelings about the film itself), a selection of deleted scenes with optional commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Igby is an obnoxious bore, it's not the fault of its cast. Kieran Culkin, likable and effective in The Mighty and The Cider House Rules, nearly manages to make Igby an interesting human being, and the supporting actors turn in solid comic performances that would have come to life on a worthier canvas.
There's a watchable movie in here somewhere, but it doesn't take long for the film to squander its early promise. This coming-of-age, anti-authoritarian story is so hamfistedly derivative that eventually you have to ask yourself if it's worth sitting through the shoddy knockoff when you've already seen the vastly superior originals. The old joke applies here: Igby Goes Down was better the first time I saw it, when it was called The Graduate. It's shallow and masturbatory, confuses cheap sarcasm with real wit, and has nothing new to say.
It's possible to make good movies on this theme. Wes Anderson has done it twice, with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. While it's painfully evident that Burr Steers has seen all of these films, it's just as painfully evident that he has failed to learn anything from them.
All charges against Culkin and the rest of the cast are dismissed, since their entertaining performances have nothing to do with why this film is so unendurably annoying. However, the court finds Burt Steers guilty of reckless self-indulgence and contempt for his audience. He is sentenced to ten years working at a Blockbuster in Hoboken, New Jersey.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Burr Steers and Kieran Culkin
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