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Igby Goes Down


Igby Goes Down

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Cast adrift in the loftiest realms of Manhattan, the disaffected young hero in writer-director Burr Steers' auspicious black comedy Igby Goes Down is like a Larry Clark baby with breeding and a budget, free to test his limits without having to worry much about the consequences. From the opening scene, when Kieran Culkin and his older brother circle like vultures over their mother's deathbed, Steers faces an uphill battle: Why should anyone care about a rich, sullen brat who spits the silver spoon out of his mouth? But once his novelistic script sets the film's off-center, comically dysfunctional universe in motion, it stirs up great affection for a character whose very presence, by all accounts, invites more than his fair share of beatings. The latest in a surging tread of modern Holden Caulfields, Culkin goes to considerable lengths to avoid his immediate family, which includes his Young Republican brother (Ryan Phillippe), blowsy, pill-popping mother (Susan Sarandon), and a father (Bill Pullman) who was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. As he approaches his 18th birthday, Culkin has been kicked out of so many cushy East Coast private schools that his mother makes good on her threat to send him to military school, where he's a primary target for hazing rituals. Looking to hide out for the summer, he renovates a few lofts for his shady godfather (a funny Jeff Goldblum) and takes up residence with Goldblum's mistress (Amanda Peet), a reckless nymphomaniac and heroin addict. Culkin finds hope for salvation when he falls for a headstrong, college-aged caterer's assistant (Claire Danes), but his jealous brother makes advances of his own. With so many relationships to establish in short order, Igby Goes Down has trouble finding its rhythm at first, which may be the result of a literary sensibility clashing with cinema's demand for narrative economy. But Steers comes from strong writer's stock—he's Gore Vidal's nephew—and he seems to gain more confidence and momentum with each passing scene, checking his caustic wit with an unexpected vein of earnestness and warmth. Even his minor characters, especially a movie-stealing Jared Harris as a flamboyant fringe-dweller on the New York art scene, are fleshed out with the kind of attentiveness that most films reserve for central roles. The large gallery of supporting characters threatens to clutter up Steers' coming-of-age tale, but like all good shaggy-dog stories, Igby Goes Down gives the impression of spontaneity while being meticulously planned. Most importantly, Steers and Culkin know that the best way to evoke sympathy is never to beg for it; by the end, their achievement seems hard-won