It looks suspiciously like the effects of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) are still being felt within American indie cinema, if the current glut of ‘middle-aged mind in an adolescent’s body’ films are anything to go by. Along with Tadpole (2002) and the forthcoming Roger Dodger (2002) comes Igby Goes Down, the debut feature of writer-director Burr Steers (best known for his brief role as ‘Flock of Seagulls’ in Pulp Fiction).
Strikingly, the promotional poster here direcly apes the ‘dysfunctional family portrait’ campaign used for Anderson’s Rushmore follow-up, the wonderful child prodigy saga The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). It even name-drops Tenenbaums in one of the poster quotes, which certainly raises expectations; but whereas Anderson has mastered a winning lightness of touch, this feels merely, well, aggravating.
Jason ‘Igby’ Slocumb (Kieran Culkin) himself is the numb and alienated offspring of well-to-do parents, who spirals from school to military academy to kipping on floors in Manhattan’s bohemian district. Thus enrolled in the University of Life, Igby discovers girls – specifically, that he’s unusually lucky with them, even if they’re markedly older. He’s hindered in this voyage by his level-headed older brother Ollie (Ryan Philippe), his uncle D. H. (Jeff Goldblum), and, from afar, by his ailing mother (Susan Sarandon). The only one who leaves him alone is his father, Jason Slocumb Sr. (Bill Pulman), the sole relative he truly holds affection for – and he’s in an insane asylum.
It’s an odyssey through the world of rich New York kids slumming it, trying desperately to out-old each other. The one-liners fly thick and fast, but they’re just not that sharp or funny. The whole parade of characters struggles to register on a level beyond being vaguely unlikeable, and it’s impossible to give two hoots what happens to any of them – in fact, it’s sorely tempting to give them all a sharp clip round the ear. It’s rather a shame: Goldblum uses the indie canvas to conjure one of his strongest performances, and Claire Danes makes a decent impression as Sookie, a girl out of the range of high society, who consequently manages to run rings round them.
But while the tone aims for pitch-black comedy (the first scene shows two of the main characters attempting to kill another), it simply never gels. The problem, possibly, is that Steers can’t get enough distance and perspective on the subject matter: he is himself the nephew of Jackie Onassis and Gore Vidal, and the latter even does a turn here as a po-faced headmaster. It’s also somewhat mind-boggling to have Kieran Culkin – Macauley’s older brother – playing a progidious brat. The soundtrack, assembled from off-the-shelf ‘alternative’ hits by Coldplay, Badly Drawn Boy and the Dandy Warhols, is in its way as unimaginative and calculating as any Hollywood blockbuster. Rather than making a biting comedy about vacuous people, Steers has just succeeded in making a rather flat, vacuous film. Despite a vague suggestion that Igby’s adventures have drilled some sense into him, there’s an air of self-satisfaction about the whole enterprise that’s exceedingly offputting. There’s quite a shortfall between the ice-cool 21st century Catcher in the Rye that Steers appears to fancy he’s making, and the rather tiresome and unengaging result.