Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
In Bob Rafelson's 1970 movie "Five Easy Pieces," Jack
Nicholson's character, Robert Eroica Dupea, gives up a career
as a promising classical pianist to work on an oil rig and live a
thoroughly blue-collar existence with a waitress. This is by way
of indicating that you don't have to be a teenager to rebel but it
helps. Get that furious opposition to authority out of your
system so you'll be free to sell out like the rest of us normal
people. In Burr Steers' "Igby Goes Down" which Steers began
as a novel and who then, two years into the project realized he
could define his characters better in a visual medium the title
character, Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr. could almost give Robert
Dupea some lessons in rebellion.
As portrayed by the remarkable Kieran Culkin, Jason so
nicknamed because of a stuffed toy whose name he
mispronounced as Igby is a 17-year-old kid; smart, with a biting
tongue and the ability to use his sharp wit to parry the thrusts of
anyone older than he, whether the opposition is his slightly older
brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) or a superannuated reverend
who runs a strict school near Igby's toney Connecticut nabe.
Sporting a cast of some of filmdom's most honored
performers, including Jeff Goldblum as Igby's godfather D.H.
Baines, Claire Danes as Igby's would-be girl friend Sookie
Sapperstein, Susan Sarandon as the teenager's distant mother
Mimi, and Ryan Phillippe as his Ivy-League educated brother,
"Igby Goes Down" shows us above all what we suspected all
along: that families contain members who are so different from
one another that you'd scarcely believe there are just six
degrees of separation between the youngest kid and the oldest
granddaddy. While coming-of-age tales of teen angst and are
abundant in literature and the screen Holden Caulfield's
supercilious anomie in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"
being, of course, the best known by today's high-school
kids Steers in some ways one-ups the great Mr. Salinger in his
remarkably entertaining, sincere, authentic, even gripping yarn
about a kid whose ups and downs sometimes appear to be
happening regardless of his manifold experiences with others.
To prove that material goods do not buy happiness but rather,
that money can, and should, allow its possessor freely to
choose the sort of life he wants to lead, Steers hones in on Igby,
a poor little rich boy whose mother, however distant, will not
leave him alone. She chooses the boy's schools; she makes
little effort to see why the young man repeatedly flunks out.
Mimi Slocumb, afflicted with breast cancer and determined to
cast Jason as a reflection of herself, simply listens to complaints
of the headmaster of a church-supported school, takes the boy
out of the academy, and puts him into a military institution.
Needless to say Igby hates the idiotic regimentation, and literally
"goes down" when some moronic upperclassmen beat him with
broomsticks in an incident that recalls the New York police
beating of Abner Louima. Inundated with experiences of early
failure, Igby is determined to bop around from one experience to
another, hoping to accumulate enough empirical knowledge to
help him rise to life's occasion.
Steers peppers the movie with sharp dialogue, mostly from
the mouth of Kieran Culkin, younger brother of the 22-year-old
Macaulay and older sib of Rory Culkin (who appears in the film
as Igby's younger self). Sitting in the office of the headmaster-
reverend of a school from which he is to be expelled, he
wonders aloud, "If heaven is so great, why is the crucifixion
such a terrible sacrifice?" Later the slightly older woman (Claire
Danes) whom he meets while she is on leave from Bennington
to "get her life together," chastises him: "You're a furious boy.
Eventually you won't be a boy and it will eat you up." When his
mom, who will reveal a special secret to Igby later in the movie
remarks, "His creation was an act of animosity. Why should his
life be?" we can see how the lad can grow to hate his mother
and why in addition he blames her for the growing
schizophrenia of his old-money dad (played in a too-small role
by Bill Pullman).
In a film released shortly before this one, "One-Hour Photo,"
Robin Williams' lonely character looks with envy and longing at
a seemingly warm, comfortable family who appear to have
everything that he does not. Appearances, however, are as
illusory as the photos that peek out from the little envelopes in
the photos shops or on the CD's in the computer. Money does
not help when one person loses most of it through
schizophrenia, as does Jason Slocum in Steers' film, or when
you're on the brink of losing your life like Mimi Slocumb, or when
you're a self-made millionaire like Jeff Goldblum's D.H. with a
wife who is, as Igby puts it, "no longer the sharpest tool in the
shed" and whose trophy girl friend betrays him with an unlikely
suitor. Nor is Igby's well-dressed, well-spoken, young
republican in the shape of Igby's older brother Oliver too
pleased with himself. He wants money, lots of it, but he knows
at heart that he's a phony and that he will have to betray his
identity to earn it.
"Igby Goes Down" is a complex interplay of family neuroses
made to look oh so easy by the talented Mr. Steers, and should
any in the audience feel that his story speaks personally to
him that you were forced to attend schools you hated and to
study for a career you had no use for or that you cannot get over
your hatred for one or both parents that's all to the good.
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten