director: Burr Steers
starring: Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe
running time: 98 mins
“His conception was an act of animosity, why shouldn’t his life be one as well?”Mimi
An extremely intelligent black comedy, Igby Goes Down brings together an excellent cast in one of the few films where all the key characters are drawn with amusing depth and I love (and generally despise) every one of them.
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.