At one point in Burr Steers’ “Igby Goes Down,” the title character, a precocious teen played by Kieran Culkin, is told bluntly by his older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) that if Gandhi had spent any time with him, he’d have beaten him up. If it’s reasonable to think that even the sainted exponent of non-violence might have reacted that way to Igby’s smart-alecky ways, what can one expect of a mere movie audience? Steers’ portrait of the ultra-sophisticated but deeply dysfunctional Slocum family and friends is intended to have the same effect as the artificial but witty exercises of Whit Stillman or the archly funny gems of Wes Anderson. But in this case instead of “The Royal Tennenbaums,” a viewer might be inclined to term the result “The Royal Pains.”
The central problem is Steers’ script, which probably reads much better than it plays. Steers is the nephew of Gore Vidal (who has an uncredited cameo in the movie), and his writing shares a studied literary wit with his uncle’s. The dialogue is a succession of slick, self-conscious one-liners, more stand-up material than convincing talk, and everyone seems a contrived caricature rather than a real person. Igby, for example, is one of those kids with a brilliant riposte for every occasion, Oliver the perennial golden boy with a malicious streak, and Mimi–the mother they both blame for their miseries–a shrewish Bette Davis type. Then there’s the Slocum paterfamilias (Bill Pullman), in flashback a nebbishy sort driven to his (present) catatonic hospitalization by his shrewish spouse, and “Uncle” R.H. (Jeff Goldblum), a typically snide, philandering Donald Trump stand-in with a mistress named Rachel (Amanda Peet) on the side. What little plot there is has Igby crashing with Rachel after escaping the military school to which he’s been consigned, and linking up with Sookie (Claire Danes), a Bennington undergrad whose barbs are even more wicked than his. (To add injury to insult, she treats Igby like a little brother, especially after she meets Oliver.) A sidebar involves the deteriorating health of Mimi, whose assisted suicide bookends the story. When a picture begins on the wrong foot–as this one does–it’s difficult for it to regain its equilibrium. Suffice it to say that the extended euthanasia sequence that starts things off is but one episode (a drug overdose is another) in which the mood swings too radically for comfort; such moments are likelier to make you queasy than to afford much insight or pleasure.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of talent on display here, even though not all of it is used to best advantage. Igby himself comes off best: following up his fine turn in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” Culkin does a very good job as a kid who’s Holden Caulfield in all but name (the latest in a crowded line of such characters in movies recently). But Phillippe is virtually comatose as Oliver, and Susan Sarandon tries too hard to seem brittle and grande dame-like as Mimi (Steers doesn’t help by having the character go so far as to sit on a maid who’s displeased her). Goldblum is sleekly malevolent as R.H. and Peet is convincing as a troubled artist, but the roles certainly doesn’t challenge their abilities. Danes, lovely as usual, gets the air of snootiness right, but Jared Harris is exaggeratedly ragged as Rachel’s drug suppplier.
The ultimate failure of “Igby Goes Down” is encapsulated in one of the most notable aspects of Igby’s relationship with Sookie. Every time they get together and talk, she keeps telling him how funny he is, but she doesn’t laugh. Igby remarks on the fact with understandable irritation, but the movie manages to evoke a similar response: it tries so hard to be quirkily amusing that you can admire its attempts at wit without finding the actual outcome terribly funny.