Magazine article The American Prospect

Show, Don't Tell: Igby Goes Down Proves Easier on the Eyes Than the Ears. (Film)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Show, Don't Tell: Igby Goes Down Proves Easier on the Eyes Than the Ears. (Film)

Article excerpt

THE GREAT GOD OF LAUGHTER, his sides forever split, is not pleased by black comedies, for the simple reason that they tend not to be very funny. The comedy of blackness is usually a kind of local anesthetic, something frozen, producing not humor but a dead-skinned tolerance for the horrible; and there is no situation so ghastly that it cannot be made worse by a bad joke.

In the opening scene of Burr Steers' debut Igby Goes Down, two well-dressed young men--one slouched, one poised--are sitting on their mother's deathbed. They are waiting for her to expire and they are getting restless. She's unconscious, but she won't go. The breath drains from her body in long, quavering snores--each one a lament, a recessional, an adieu--but she won't go. The boys consult their watches, swear peevishly and curse their mother's constitution ("[Too much] fucking tennis!"), but still she won't go. So they decide to speed things up by putting a plastic bag over her head. Ha ha! Or, rather, not. And that's because, despite the best efforts of our edgy young filmmakers, the inhuman will always be unamusing.

Luckily for us, the first scene of Igby Goes Down is the worst. Other unamusing things follow--lines such as "If I'm immature, you're prenatal!" and "Not going to New Jersey isn't procrastination, it's common sense." (It is only from the slight intellectual ache left behind by these lines that one recognizes them as witticisms.) But let's be fair: Writer/director Steers, pressed as he might be by the need to show us what a smart-y-pants he is, is only being faithful to his characters, specifically to his lead character, Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr. (played by Kieran Culkin). Igby--younger brother, self-saboteur, private-school runaway, failed military cadet, great disappointment to everyone--fends off the world with his wit; and if the jokes are bad, it's because the world is increasingly getting the better of him.

Morbidly privileged and totally unloved, Igby is going down--down for the count, down through the levels of society and down, finally, into knowledge, which lies at the bottom of things. His mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), is a sort of snow queen of disgust, spitting at her family while coddling her own vices. (Her plentiful pills are her "peppies"; when getting her wineglass re-refilled, she asks for "a little baby portion.") His father, Jason (Bill Pullman), had a terrifying mental breakdown when Igby was a boy, and is now institutionalized. And his older brother, Oliver (Ryan Philippe), is--worst of all--a success, heading off to Columbia to master economics. Not really wanting to do anything at all--anywhere, at any time--Igby finds that plans are being made for him: He is bounced from private school to military school to some sort of rehab before going on the lam in Manhattan, where he sells his heirlooms on the street and falls with relief into dubious company.

Culkin as Igby gives a strange, bloodless performance. For lack of a better term, let's call him "evasive," which seems to fit the bill. The actors around him are, more obviously, doing great work. Amanda Peet as Rachel the junkie choreographer--Igby's hostess for a spell--is particularly ferocious, glaring green-eyed out of ash pits of kohl, tottering about, a victim equally of high heels and a drug-perturbed inner ear. She fairly hums with Manhattanite tension; even nodding out on the toilet, she never slackens. …

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