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Igby Goes Down

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Igby Goes Down

Starring: Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes
Director: Burr Steers
Rated: R
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: September 2002
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Romance

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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

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