Igby Goes Down
directed by Burr Steers
(United Artists, 2002)

Igby Slocum is a 17-year-old rich kid who runs through boarding schools faster than most kids do underwear. This causes no end of trouble for his well-to-do but emotionally challenged mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) and neo-fascist brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), who's all bound up in old school ties at Columbia.

It also allows Igby's wealthy godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) to step in and step on people, which he is very good at. Igby (Kieran Culkin) would prefer that his father (Bill Pullman) stepped in, but Dad has already stepped out; he's been in a mental hospital for six years, following a rather violent and bloody breakdown (no doubt the sane thing to do, given the circumstances).

But bad as things are, they nevertheless find ways to get worse, especially after Igby goes AWOL from military school and decides to crash with a dancer (Amanda Peel) who rents a studio from D.H. -- although the rent appears to be "payment in kind" rather than cash -- and gets involved with a Bennington-based bartender named Sookie (Claire Danes) he meets at one of D.H.'s house parties in the Hamptons.

That would seem to be more than enough material to fill 97 minutes of video space, but it's not. Igby Goes Down is considerably more than just a slice of life among the rich and clueless.

Igby has a serious underside that eventually overwhelms the entire film and leaves its players and partakers in somewhat of a state of confusion. And it's pretty clear writer-director Burr Steers -- whose biggest movie credit until Igby was Van in The Last Days of Disco -- was aiming for exactly that when he laid out Igby.

It opens with Igby and his brother sitting on their mother's bed while she wheezes away and they discuss whether the poison they've just fed her stands a chance, given her body's familiarity with every drug known to man or woman. That said, they opt for plan B: a plastic bag over her head.

Yet all this is done to accompaniment of a jaunty little tune, as if it might be a snippet from an episode of The Addams Family. As a result, Igby has the appearance, at the outset at least, of a dark comedy, and Steers works his comic moments well.

But as the film progresses, and Igby falls deeper and deeper into a web of betrayals -- and Mimi develops terminal cancer -- the dark side overwhelms the luscious ironies that fall from the protagonist's lips, and even a return to the opening scene can't bring Igby back to black comedy.

Igby Goes Down is, in part, a 21st-century Catcher in the Rye: a look at a generation growing up with all the so-called advantages and very little interest in any of them. Unlike J.D. Salinger, however, Steers can't seem to -- or doesn't want to -- raise sustained sympathy for Igby.

His film is beautifully photographed, and its narrative style -- a series of vignettes that fade to black, often with little or no resolution of the ongoing conflicts -- helps build the quirky m.o. of the early scenes.

But in the end, Igby is no clearer than it was in the beginning: Igby jets off into the sunrise, a visual clue suggests that he and his brother have committed a somewhat less-than perfect crime and viewers and reviewers wonder what to think of a child who makes it a point to miss his mother's funeral.

For all his strengths as a writer-director, Steers, it seems, has left more than his protagonist up in the air.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 20 September 2003

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