Watching “Igby Goes Down,” I couldn’t help thinking how I had wasted my youth on petty things like college and waitressing when I could have done something more substantial — such as nothing. Seventeen-year-old “Igby” (so called after a childhood teddy bear) Slocum is a master at the art of teenage loafing: between smoking and getting kicked out of one East Coast prep school after another, he doesn’t do a whole lot. Girls, on occasion. Getting beaten up, sometimes. But mostly, he’s stretched out on a borrowed mattress in an apartment that belongs to his godfather’s girlfriend, pouting inwardly at the excruciating boredom of life.
“Igby Goes Down” is almost a modern-day version of J.D. Salinger’s novel “Catcher in the Rye,” but our hero is markedly less engaging than the gangly Holden Caulfield. Perhaps the main snag is that Igby is played by Kieran Culkin, an actor distinguished by his eminently high slapability factor. Perhaps it’s just that writer/director Burr Steers never intended Igby to be other than totally irritating. Yet he and Holden have plenty in common, particularly sharp observational powers, coupled with rich-boy self-indulgence. But unlike Igby, Holden at least partially owned up to his shortcomings and showed a measure of sincerity toward the adults who (however misguided) tried to extend a helping hand.
Igby is much more self-destructive, but at the same time he’s completely dependent on the people he professes to despise, namely his family. He’ll sink without their financial and social support, but insists on mocking their generosity with tiresome pranks and escapades. When his older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillipe), tells him, “Even Mahatma Ghandi would be compelled to beat you up,” we know exactly what he means.
As the story opens we see Igby seated in the headmaster’s office, crowded with heavy, mahogany furniture. Igby’s mother, Mimi (a splendid Susan Sarandon), is with him there and dominates this space with her imposing persona. She’s just been told that Igby has been expelled due to bad conduct and the subsequent fury she unleashes on her son indicates that this is a recurring pattern with him. The list of posh schools that Igby can attend is dwindling, so Mimi calls upon Oliver (top of his class at Columbia University), and Igby’s godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) to hammer some sense into the “unbelievable idiot.”
Oliver is a calculating, unsmiling stiff at the age of 21 and D.H. is a man who prefers to solve all of life’s minor problems by handing out crisp $50 bills. The whole set-up reeks of money and eccentric family relations, like some British 19th-century drawing-room novel, and sure enough, it’s revealed that Igby’s dad (Bill Pullman) is in absentia, having first made a fortune and then going bonkers. After dad’s institutionalization, D.H. had stepped in to finance Igby’s education, but Igby couldn’t care less. He spends the summer after expulsion holed up in the loft of Rachel (Amanda Peet), D.H.’s mistress — a drugged-out dancer with plenty of issues of her own, and embarking on a brief affair with a Jewish intellectual named Sookie (Claire Danes), whom he met at D.H.’s party in the Hamptons.
Steers draws out some wonderful performances from everyone, but there’s a feeling that a lot of the good lines and moments might have got chopped off, leaving the movie strangely fragmented, with a tendency to jump from subject to subject (just like its protagonist). In the production notes, Steers says he had wanted to make this a tribute to youth (primarily his own), but a good chunk seems more like an indictment. Youth isn’t at all attractive as portrayed by Igby and Co., just jaded and capricious, and fantastically selfish.
For all his befuddledness, Igby’s father radiates warmth and a kind of tragic humor — he is at least free from worldly desires and their symptoms. (Igby recognizes this and loves him for it.) One flashback scene shows his dad getting into the shower in the early stages of schizophrenia, and as soon as he turns on the water, he feels compelled to punch the glass door with his fist. The 10-year-old Igby (played by Rory Culkin of the Culkin clan) finds his dad slumped in the corner with bloody hands, the expensive soaps and French shampoo bottle strewn all over the tiled floor, smiling sweetly through his tears. This is after Mimi had told him to bathe after weeks of not washing — “You give off a smell, darling” she had told him in a tone so acidic it could have melted steel.
Mimi is a wicked witch who, by occasional displays of vulnerability, just barely avoids caricature. “I know how you hate me” is one of her oft-repeated lines to Igby. It’s clear that they had been archenemies from Igby’s childhood (“His creation was an act of animosity so I don’t see why his life shouldn’t be one” is how she describes it) and one of the redeeming qualities of “Igby Goes Down” is the terrific honesty of this atypical mother-son relationship. It also underlines one of the biggest perks of teenage angst: All of one’s misery can be blamed on family.