Film Reviews

Catcher in the Wry

Among the more preposterous rumors spread by Harry Knowles, whose Ain't It Cool News movie-biz-gossip Web site garners undue attention from studios too craven to do their own thinking, was one from early this year: Terrence Malick, Knowles "reported," was working on an adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye for Fox Searchlight. J.D. Salinger would never allow such a thing, and it's a moot point, to boot. Catcher's been made and remade for decades under various noms de crap, most recently as the rather slyly titled Chasing Holden (dumped straight to video, blessedly) and The Good Girl (co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal as "Holden," a cashier in the rye), but also previously as Five Easy Pieces and the complete works, more or less, of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman.

At least Burr Steers, co-star of Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, comes honestly to this genre -- you know, the one populated by fucked-up rich people who discover money can't buy you love, though it does allow for extraordinary houses in the Hamptons. He grew up in a playpen made of old money, his uncle is novelist and would-be actor Gore Vidal, and his first acting coach was Jeff Goldblum. That both appear in Steers's first film -- alongside Susan Sarandon, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, Amanda Peet and Claire Danes -- is as much testament to the director's birthright as his first-timer's tenacity.

It should surprise no one that Igby Goes Down, Steers's debut as writer and director, was originally intended to be a novel; each scene comes ringed in gold leaf, like a fine first edition. It seems as though it was originally published in, oh, the 1970s; from first scene to last it feels vestigial, a spry remnant of a bygone age, when auteurs were authors (with names like Hal Ashby) peeping through a camera's keyhole into the mansions of the rich and bored. (It also owes its existence to Holiday, George Cukor's 1938 film in which the wealthy are driven bonkers by the empty thrill of privilege.)

Steers's Holden surrogate is Jason Slocumb Jr., played by Kieran Culkin, already on view this year as a tortured altar boy with a dangerous life; he's Igby here, so nicknamed for a childhood doll. Igby's a major screwup. He's been kicked out of most prep schools ("He's already done the Protestant circuit," explains one family member) and skips out of military school. He has a smart and foul mouth ("If heaven's such a wonderful place," he asks a priest, played by Vidal, "how is getting crucified such a big fucking sacrifice?") and wants nothing more than to go on his Razor's Edge trip, even if that simply means living gratis in New York City while, from a distance, torturing his mother (Sarandon, radiant even while overdosing).

Igby was doomed from the jump. "His creation was an act of animosity," Sarandon explains, and his father (Pullman) has been locked away in the nuthouse (the Maryland Home for the Befuddled, so says the son). Igby just wants a fresh start, away from family, including his despotic older brother, Oliver (Phillippe, tangled in Ivy League), and Mom, to whom we're introduced while the brothers are force-feeding her narcotics in an effort to induce everlasting slumber, though her system is so glutted with self-induced dope that nothing seems to take.

Steers's film will likely polarize the audience, which, if nothing else, gives it rare resonance; at least it makes you feel, where many similar indie efforts make you sleepy. Steers's characters are such tortured wrecks -- movieland eccentrics or, in other words, people who confuse flaws for character traits -- they teeter on being parodic, which is likely the point, and where the apologist will find pity the pragmatist will find his or her keys and head to the parking lot. Their behavior is contradictory: Danes's Sookie Sapperstein, who rolls the perfect joint and never laughs, falls for both Igby and Oliver, which is akin to liking Van Halen with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. It's also outrageous: When someone's not suffering a breakdown they're suffering a bad-smack attack or having the shit beaten out of them, literally and otherwise. They're lost, adrift, disconnected, selfish, spoiled and, likely, doomed -- or all of the above in the case of, among others, Peet as a proud, dissolute mistress. That Steers gives a damn about any of them feels somehow noble; if he weren't there to care for them, to yank the needles from their limp limbs or imbue them with some dignity and decency, they'd likely vanish without a trace.

Steers instills these dull figures -- shadows of shadows is all they are, caricatures whose own family members want nothing to do with them -- with sharp words; he makes them watchable, if not exactly affable. Why Igby is rebelling isn't clear; he just is, because that's what kids his age do when they come from fuckups and don't want to take responsibility for their own actions. That makes Igby repellent, actually, though Steers doesn't judge. He merely observes, with the compassionate grin of someone who just knows.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky