Igby [Kieran Culkin] is avoiding school essentially in an attempt to find himself and escape the dysfunction of his family, although he's making it up as he goes along without any real plans. His family consists of his father Jason [Bill Pullman] in a mental institution, his dying self-absorbed pill-popping mother Mimi [Susan Sarandon], his manipulative young Republican brother Oliver [Ryan Phillippe] and wealthy success-obessessed godfather D.H. Baines [Jeff Goldblum]. Igby develops a strange relationship with his godfather's mistress Rachel [Amanda Peet] and then finds a more stable one through a few chance encounters with Sookie Sapperstein [Claire Danes] until she is seduced away by his brother. Through all of this, and contrary to the title, Igby refuses to go down and may be the only one capable of escaping this mess and moving forward.
The film has very little in the way of a plot, being instead constructed from a series of dialogue-oriented episodes that show Igby's interaction with those around him and the relationships that develop. Steers chooses to start with the end of the story and then jump back, a device that seems largely unnecessary, but the violent shock of that scene does unsettle and grab the attention of the audience. The introductory scene of snippets from Igby's young life is also particularly well edited, offering an amusing insight into the utter dysfunction in which he has been forced to grow up.
With a less adeptly written script this could have been unbearable, but its inherent wit constantly shines through, with Igby especially delivering lines like "good things come to obsessive-compulsives who fixate". While it is really hard to sympathise with any of the chracters, Steers does draw out some pathos in Igby as everyone seems to come down on him at some point. And yet, he treads along the line of irony without letting the heavy drama ever overtake the mood entirely. Even in the fraught closing scenes with his mother, the sense of tragedy is still interjected with humour.
But it is really Steers' writing rather than direction that shines. We understand Mimi's self-absorbed attitude from the moment she chides Igby as he flunks out of another school, "Did you even consider how this reflects upon me?" and Sarandon's performance is wonderfully eccentric. Ryan Phillippe is startling accurate in his delivery as Oliver, despite the fact he has no younger siblings himself. His always subtly condescending interaction with Igby is superb. Goldblum is suitably smarmy as Igby's uncle and is often funny through his facial reactions to what others say rather than his own lines. He also uses his size to great advantage in appearing a hulking and imposing presence at times.
Sookie is more difficult. While Danes is always sexy and sweetly alluring, it's difficult to forgive Sookie's actions towards Igby because we know this caustic bohemian college student is intelligent enough to know what she is doing. To her credit Danes makes it believable both that she would fall for Oliver's charms, and that she is genuinely cut up about hurting Igby. Pullman is able to both overplay and underplay the depression and breakdown of Igby's father, resulting in a moving minor role, especially the heartwrenching shower scene as a young Iby (played by Kieran's younger brother, Rory Culkin) watches on. Amanda Peet manages to play her junkie dancer character surprisingly sympathetically, despite Igby's description of her and her friend, "She's a dancer who doesn't dance and he's a painter who doesn't paint. It's kind of like a BoHo version of The Island of Misfit Toys." As D.H.'s mistress, her situation represents everything Igby hates about his family and the way they use everything around them.
Culkin remains the film's highlight, however, and he is able to show a reasonably impressive range here (having already shown himself to be considerably more gifted than his better known Home Alone brother), embodying all the characteristics of Igby's shrewd intelligence, hopeful gloominess and awareness of his self-destructive attitude. He can be delightfully dry at times: "I could just eat you with a spoon!" gushes his aunt Bunny enthusiastically; "Don't," he responds flatly. While he occassionally shows overwhelming emotion such as the poignant scene in which he tries to convince Sookie that Oliver will just use her and cast her aside(incidentally this was also the audition scene for the role of Igby).
As a film, Igby Goes Down is far more than the sum of its parts, and it is the finer nuances of each performance that will linger long after the end of the first watching. Indeed, it is one of the few films that can be rewatched immediately while still feeling fresh and new. For all its wistful darkness, Igby's continual insightful wit make this a fun and often hilarious cinematic treat.
Families can be important to a person’s career, just ask Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez or George W. Bush. Or perhaps ask Burr Steers, Nephew to National Book Award-winning author Gore Vidal, descendent of U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, great-grandson of Oklahoma founder and U.S. Senator Thomas Gore - relative of U.S. Vice President Al Gore, or then again, maybe not. Burr Steers, much like the lead character of his first screenplay, and directorial debut, Igby Goes Down spent most of his youth battling the pressures of growing up in a demanding ‘successful’ family and spent his twenties between jobs, doing small theatre acting jobs, as well as managing to land a place as ‘Flock-of-Seagulls Roger’ in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
In the opening credits, Igby and his fascist brother Oliver (Ryan Philippe)’s past is played out between Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen’s wonderful score. Although the scenes are brief, they manage to expertly depict the direction of the film. Igby’s father Jason (Bill Pullman), and mother (Susan Sarandon) bicker at the table about personal hygiene, before Jason leaves the table and returns naked to propose a toast to ‘good hygiene’, it’s an opening that manages to be funny and yet saddening, dramatic yet light-hearted. The bitter-sweet mood to the film is its crowning glory, and without it, Igby Goes Down perhaps would have fallen into a ‘coming of age’ drama or perhaps a comment on the aspects of 21st century parenthood, but Igby manages to flirt freely with genre precincts and come out smelling beautifully.
Away from the opening credits, Igby’s wit and intelligence becomes the driving force of the film, whether being sent to counselling or to military school, the audience is under the spell of Igby’s charm, which is as much down to Steer’s writing as it is to Culkin’s utterly enduring performance (who else knows the hardships of family success than Culkin or Steers?).
Sookie Saperstein (Clare Danes) soon manages to end up involved with Igby’s life, in which they develop a genuinely moving relationship, whether discussing their schizophrenic / pseudo-bohemian parents or planning to run away to ‘the sunshine state’. Danes is perfectly cast, and manages to be both intelligent and charming, instead of the usual ‘female as sexual object’ pastiche that appear all too often in films involving the lives of teenagers.
D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) is also alarmingly accurate as Igby’s yuppie Godfather and the prime example of what Igby might become if he was to follow his mother’s intentions. Amanda Peet plays Rachael, the drug-addled ‘dancer who doesn’t dance’ who falls victim to D.H.’s disinterest of their sexual relationship, and into the arms of drugs use.
But although the film enlists truly stellar performances from the entire cast (and indeed crew), the film really belongs to Bill Pullman as Jason Slocumb, the schizophrenic dad who despite a lack of screen time manages to put on a dazzlingly saddening performance of deteriorating mental health, as well as Jason Slocumb Junior (Igby) that sees Kieran Culkin portray intelligence, downright coolness, as well hard-hitting emotional scenes with utter confidence and sheer brilliance. Culkin’s performance alone would have made the film, but the fact that the entire list of characters was so brilliantly cast and performed only adds to the sobering ambiance of the film.
If someone was to search long and hard for faults in the film they would only perhaps come up with Ryan Phillipe’s Oliver, who doesn’t get enough screen time or memorable lines, but Phillipe’s performance is not to be criticised, merely the character, which may be explained by Steer’s comment that Igby Goes Down was originally written as a part of a much larger story.
Igby Goes Down is a shining example of what can be achieved with a great script and excellent performances from all involved, and a personal triumph for Burr Steers (first time writer / director) as well as Kieran Culkin, which has allowed him to leap from former child star into brilliant ‘one-to-watch’ adult actor. The film may never be recognised as a mainstream classic, but looks set to receive a well deserved cult following. With now a wide host of talented young writer / directors; such as Wes Anderson, Richard Kelly, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and now Burr Steers, let’s hope their intelligence can be enjoyed for decades to come.
The story, set in New York, is about a young man, Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr. Read more
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