Angst that endears

Movie Review

October 04, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

There's something disturbing, something funny and, yes, even something endearing about this Igby character, though I thank God there's no one like him or his ilk in my life.

Igby is a malcontent, a button-pusher, a guy who lives to tick the world off -- if only because he's certain the world regards him the same way. And he's pretty good at it, too; in fact, Igby's the kind of teen-ager who would probably be good at whatever he chose to do, so smart and manipulative and full of unrealized potential is he. He's wasting all those gifts right now, and family precedent suggests he may continue wasting them.

But maybe, just maybe, he'll turn things around.

Igby Goes Down is a dark, little comic tale that's really not comic at all, the saga of a self-affirmed smart-aleck getting his comeuppance from a world that doesn't take well to smart-alecks. But first-time writer-director Burr Steers' hero is too complex to suffer labels too comfortably. Sure, there's a lot of The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield in Igby, including a family history of mental illness, but there's also a dab of Ferris Bueller, plus a suggestion of Dennis the Menace.

In short, here's a kid who's incorrigibly watchable, who's as likely to break your heart as to steal it. And he's surrounded by a cast of characters who both explain away his myriad flaws -- growing up in these surroundings, how else could he end up? -- and make him seem not nearly as bad by comparison.

One thing's certain: Igby (Kieran Culkin, another acting Culkin brother) has issues. He hates his family (especially his cruelly dismissive mother), hates school (and does his best to avoid it), hates the idea of doing anything other than what the spur of the moment dictates. The question is, will all this hate drag him down, or will he be able to make it on his own terms -- which have to be better than those employed by the people around him?

The film plays out in flashback, just as Igby and his loathsomely smug brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), are asphyxiating their mother. We see the events leading up to the act: the boyhood bereft of any real companionship, the mentally disturbed father (Bill Pullman), and most of all Mimi, the shrewish mother (a bug-eyed Susan Sarandon) who's a piece of work sufficient to exhaust the patience of Job.

Thus, there's plenty of motivation for what Igby and Oliver have done; in a sense, she gets better than she deserves.

Plenty of supporting players show up along Igby's way, and save for Sookie (Claire Danes), a quirky fellow rebel, they don't share a clue among them. There's his mother's boyfriend, D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), an insufferably boorish real-estate mogul genetically predisposed to looking down his nose at everyone; D.H.'s mistress, Rachel (Amanda Peet), who thinks she knows the score but doesn't even understand the game; and Rachel's roommate, Russel, an artist who so insists he has the muse, you just know he doesn't.

Steers is careful to give almost all of his characters a few scenes where their humanity shows through. Only Mimi seems irredeemable, but because she's played by Sarandon, we keep thinking there has to be something worthwhile inside her somewhere. That there isn't proves both disappointing and daringly exhilarating.

Skillfully acted -- Culkin is especially wonderful, making Igby a character we care about, despite our best instincts -- and crisply written, Igby Goes Down stumbles only briefly, at the very end, when Mimi uncorks a final devastating revelation concerning her family. Delivered in an offhand manner that again showcases her utter depravity, it's meant to offer Igby an unexpected ray of hope. It does, but at the risk of belaboring a point about Mimi.

Still, this is a marvelous film, a look at the strange, exasperatingly labyrinthine process of adolescence and the diverse ways people find to deal with it. You may not want to follow Igby's example, but at least you'll want to applaud his creativity.

Igby Goes Down

Starring Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon

Directed by Burr Steers

Released by United Artists

Rated R (language, sexuality, drug use)

Time 104 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2

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