You always hope a film will be literate, but sometimes one can be entirely too literary. That’s the case with “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which comes across like a pretentious short story, down to its use of the Simon & Garfunkel song as its title. A prime example of scripter Allan Loeb straining to impress comes early on, when its young protagonist explains that his on-again-off-again girlfriend works at a bookstore called The Pale Fire, at which the person he’s conversing with immediately exhibits his erudition by pointing out the allusion to John Shade’s poem in “Pale Fire.” Even a great fan of Nabokov might blanch at such an obvious attempt to show off.
You have to wonder what attracted director Matt Webb to Loeb’s script even apart from that sort of affectation, because the basic plot is just too precious for words. Thomas (Callum Turner) is a college grad from a well-to-do Manhattan family who thinks he wants to be a writer but spends most of his time wandering around the tonier regions of the Big Apple with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons)—the clerk at that pompously-named bookstore.
He’s in a funk, though, not only because he can’t figure out what to do with his life, but because Mimi has announced her decision to go off to Europe and he’s worried about his mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), a psychologically damaged soul whom he feels his father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), a well-heeled publisher, is neglecting while constantly prodding him to give some serious attention to choosing a career.
It’s hard to feeling sorry for Thomas, though. While he lives in a crummy apartment on the Lower East Side, he can crash at his parents’ ritzy place whenever the spirit moves him (and, it seems, it often does), and doesn’t seem to hunger for anything but attention Indeed, we see him hobnobbing at one of their dinner parties with characters played by the likes of Wallace Shawn, whom he joins in complaining about how much New York has changed for the worse (which has a grain of truth, if you compare this movie with other, better ones made in the city).
As it turns out, however, Thomas is right about his father: he spies the old man having a night out with beautiful young editor Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). And New York being as small as it is, he bumps into them a second time. Obviously they’re having an affair. Being a dutiful son, he stalks Johanna, and when they meet yet again at a party, they are attracted to one another. Before long mistress Johanna is cheating on Ethan with his own son.
This unlikely ménage a trois is observed from afar, as it were, by Thomas’ new neighbor W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, bedraggled fellow who takes an immediate interest in the young man. Though his apartment is bereft of all furniture save a desk, a typewriter and a cache of liquor, he is filled to the brim with sage advice, which he doles out in pithy comments as Thomas relates his tale of self-absorbed woe in regular visits to the guy. (W.F., of course, is the fellow who immediately recognizes the allusion to Nabokov and explicates it for viewers not in on the joke.) Bridges, as is his wont, has enormous fun with the role, contorting his face into a wan smile as he harrumphs and squeezes out Loeb’s overwritten lines as though he were emptying a tube of toothpaste.
But who is W.F., and what is his motivation in getting so close to Thomas? One might suspect the worst, but of course this isn’t a film likely to go in so untoward a direction, and the explanation is more benign, even bathetic—as well as serving as the deus ex machina that resolves the story threads pretty happily—and even more implausibly, though not quite to the extent as was the case in Loeb’s previous script for the excruciating “Collateral Beauty.”
Apart from the hammy but enjoyable Bridges, the picture doesn’t offer much from an acting perspective. Brosnan does his snootily stiff routine, while Beckinsale is dull enough to almost make you forget how good she was in Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” and Nixon overdoes the about-to-crack business. Clemons, however, remains an engaging presence. As for Turner, this seems to be a would-be breakthrough role that doesn’t break through; the tall, lanky actor comes off more quirkily befuddled than charmingly sympathetic.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” is nicely shot by Stuart Dryburgh—in fact it makes the city a far more attractive place than did another picture with a curiously similar plot about infidelity, “Landline”—but the prettiness of the locations, and of the characters set in them, can’t conceal the essential phoniness that permeates the film.