Igby Goes Down
A few years ago the critic Roger Ebert responded to a question by a reader who asked why he couldn't use a kind of double-numerical rating system that would also tell whether or not the film had some intellectual content, so that the presumably sophisticated reader would know whether or not it was worth seeing. Ebert wrote back: "In other words, the first number represents how good I think the movie is, and the second number represents how smart I think you are?"
Although I don't use a rating system of any kind, let me say first that "Igby Goes Down" is a film for smart people. You need to have some wit, some experience of life, you need to be reasonably well read, and you must above all have a sense of irony. If you have those qualities then you must see this film. Even if you don't, I would like to recommend it in the hope that it will make you a better person.
Igby, played with brilliant understanding of the role by Kieran Culkin, is a 16-year-old dropout and runaway from every possible school, the neglected child of wealthy harriden Mimi (Susan Sarandon). "I call her Mimi," he says, "because Heinous One is a bit cumbersome." His older brother Ollie ("the fascist"), is a neat-as-a-pin Columbia student, played by Ryan Philippe. Their father (Bill Pullman) has had a schizophrenic break and is now confined to a mental hospital. Is this funny so far? Well, it's hysterical. That is, watching Igby, who reminds us of Holden Caulfield a year later, wittier, brighter and less internalized, is one of the great treats you will have at the movies this year.
Igby has a wonderful way with older women. He meets Rachel (Amanda Peet), the mistress of his godfather, the rapacious D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) and very quickly they are in bed together. He also meets the Bennington dropout Sookie (Claire Danes), and very quickly they too are in bed together. And with good reason; Igby is adorable.
But although there is great wit here, laugh-out-loud wit, the film is not a light comedy. First-time writer-director Burr Steers, and this is a brilliant debut, is well aware of the dark side of his story and his people, and what we learn is not pretty. In fact we see early on that Igby's adorable wit and manner are compensations for a vulnerability that in the course of the film comes almost to overwhelm him. Is it a perfect film? No, in part because there seem to be bits of the plot's connective tissue that got left on the cutting room floor; but you'll get the missing information quickly enough. What I am saying is that if you rate high enough on both halves of that scale you'll find this is one of the very best films of the year, and that is not a backhanded compliment.