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Brief idyll: Culkin and Danes in Igby Goes Down

Poor Little Rich Boy

By Ann Morrow

Igby Goes Down
Directed by Burr Steers

Stories about troubled rich kids can be hard to take seriously; after all, they’ve got food, clothing, shelter and credit cards, and they attend good schools. Igby Goes Down, a mordantly funny and trenchant coming-of-age-of-inheritance story, makes it corrosively clear how being born to wealth sometimes offers very little protection against the cold, ruthless world—especially when it’s the family members who are cold and ruthless. Take Igby (Kieran Culkin), for example. He’s got a violently bitchy mother (Susan Sarandon), who institutionalizes his schizophrenic father (Bill Pullman); a smug, New Republican older brother (Ryan Phillippe); and an unctuous, devious godfather, D.H. (Jeff Goldblum). Besieged on all sides, Igby spirals socially downward from enrollment at a prestigious prep school to crashing at the apartment of a drag queen with a thing for Lucky Charms.

Directed with unflinching honesty by tyro filmmaker Burr Steers, Igby opens with Igby and his brother Ollie standing at the beside of their mother, who is zonked on painkillers and snoring. They’re waiting for her to stop breathing. The rest of the film is told in flashback: Igby’s self-destructive acting out begins after his father’s breakdown and continues until there isn’t a prep school left that will accept him. What people most dislike about him, it seems, is his reflexive habit of commenting on the hypocrisy, self-interest and pomposity of his milieu. When asked why he calls his mother “Mimi,” he replies: “Because Medea was already taken.”

This relentlessly sarcastic portrait of family dysfunction does a convincing job of exposing how a child of privilege could fall through the cracks—a fate that Igby narrowly escapes. The same rebelliousness that gets him kicked out of the Clipped Wings reform school also propels him away from a life of avarice, status seeking and prescription drugs. When he escapes to the East Village studio of D.H.’s boho mistress (Amanda Peet, who is deservedly becoming the queen of seriocomedy), he’s exposed to a kinder, gentler form of the same malaise, personified by Russel, a pretentious performance artist and junkie (Jared Harris). Acutely observed (probably firsthand—Steers is the nephew of Gore Vidal), the film compares to a junior-set Bonfire of the Vanities, only brattier—Igby’s is a wienie roast of the vanities.

He gets a brief chance to let down his defenses during a fling with Sookie (Clare Danes), a promiscuous hippie “recuperating” from Bennington College. That Igby is not only bearable but endearingly likeable is a credit to Culkin’s irrepressible sensitivity: Igby’s humanity lights up his face during the rare moments when he’s not deploying an insulting wisecrack. Viewed with nonjudgmental ambivalence, none of the characters is completely despicable, not even sleazy D. H. (the cast is uniformly terrific). Almost unnoticeably, the film picks up emotional momentum until a bleakly cathartic ending that turns Steers’ teen-angst comedy into one of the most affecting movies of the year.

Too Far to Walk

Moonlight Mile
Directed by Brad Silberling

In Moonlight Mile, writer-
director Brad Silberling dramatizes the traumatic effect the murder of a young woman has on her parents and fiancé. Silberling goes even deeper than one might expect into the misery of pain and loss, yet maintains an admirable, bracing sense of humor about how these survivors cope. Still, in the end, he doesn’t delve deeply enough.

Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo Floss (Susan Sarandon) are in an indescribably painful situation. Joe’s fiancée—the Floss’ daughter—is dead, but this odd trio are carrying on with their relationship. Joe is living in the Floss home, and going into the real estate business with Ben. All three are being prepared for the trial of the daughter’s killer by D.A. Mona Camp (Holly Hunter). Joe, meanwhile, meets Bertie (Ellen Pompeo). It’s clear that romance is on the horizon, though Bertie has issues of her own.

Joe is impossible to read—Gyllenhaal plays up the dithering, unformed aspects of this almost too-young man—but Hoffman and Sarandon give us an interesting, believable married couple. Hoffman’s Ben is kind to a fault, but passive-aggressive, while Sarandon’s JoJo is all sarcasm and bite, spitting uncomfortable truths in every direction.

There are some astonishing moments in the film, best illustrated by two starkly contrasting scenes with JoJo and Joe. In the first, JoJo explains why her marriage to Ben works: Sarandon delivers an affecting monologue about going to bed with her husband every night, where, no matter how angry or disaffected or tired they may be, they find that simply sleeping together is “home” for both. The second occurs after JoJo discovers Joe has found another girl. Swilling Scotch, JoJo rages about this, her first alcoholic bender in five years, and exclaims that the bottle was the only way she could stand to stay in the same house, year after year, with her husband and daughter. (Sarandon is even more convincing in this scene.) Which emotional outburst is true? The film seems to imply that both are genuine—that happiness and misery can and do painfully coexist in the same relationship. Strong, dangerous and brave material.

The film doesn’t carry this through, however. The fearlessness of that earlier emotional complexity gives way to the requirements of Hollywood filmmaking. (Even the ambiguity of The Graduate’s final image would be too strong for this film.) A happy ending—an ending with which every character finds “peace” and “closure”—isn’t avoided. This is a shame. Moonlight Mile doesn’t even fade away to the mournful majesty of the Rolling Stones’ title piece: The upbeat faux-soul crooning of Van Morrison serenades the lovers on their road to happiness. That is a damn shame.

—Shawn Stone

Meat By-Product

Red Dragon
Directed by Brett Ratner

Red Dragon, adapted from Thomas Harris’ expertly pulpy bestseller, is being billed as the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 Oscar-winner that made a superstar out of “Hannibal the Cannibal.” Actually, Red Dragon is a remake more than a prequel, seeing how the film’s first three quarters are almost identical to Manhunter, Michael Mann’s relentlessly taut 1986 adaptation of the same novel.

The difference, aside from the new version’s bigger budget and more illustrious cast, is that Red Dragon has more backstory, more graphically repulsive visuals, and more of Anthony Hopkins’ infamous Dr. Lecter. And it’s the weaker film for it. The opening sequence (only alluded to in Manhunter) gets it all wrong. Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) consults with Dr. Lecter, a respected psychiatrist, and is nearly eviscerated after discovering that the doctor is the cannibal he’s been hunting for. This discovery is made through a big fat clue left by Lecter, who would know better, and not by Graham’s unnerving empathy with serial killers. Both characters are off on the wrong foot, and stay off. The ending, which is more faithful to the book, comes out of left field.

Unlike William Peterson’s dangerously obsessed agent, Norton plays Will as vulnerable yet determined, much like Jodie Foster’s agent in Silence. But without the element of queasy sexual tension, the approach doesn’t work. Will has to take a backseat not only to Lecter, the star attraction, but also to Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), who slaughters two families and then writes a fan letter to Lecter. Perhaps to differentiate this Francis from the earlier one played with blood-chilling minimalism by Tom Noonan, the killer is called “Mr. D.” The tabloids call him “The Tooth Fairy” because he bites his victims (for starters). Two of the things we learn about D. is that he’s well-endowed and that he’s sensitive about the raw-looking scar above his lip. And the more we know, the less frightening he becomes. Ratner is obviously trying to turn D. into a pop-culture icon to rival Lecter; instead of being brilliant and cultured, D. is fragile and romantic. The blatant packaging of Harris’ sicko as the Heathcliff of killers is repugnant in a way the director probably didn’t intend. Fiennes—who played Heathcliff in his 1992 screen debut—has his moments of weirdo intensity, but he’s too swoonily attractive and delicately built to be convincing as a predator.

With nothing to go on, Will resorts to picking Lecter’s brain for insight, but this time, their power struggle is no contest: Lecter is always one step ahead. Somehow, he even knows that the Tooth Fairy is heavily tattooed. Hopkins tries to play the younger Lecter as even more suavely sinister by adding an effete hiss to his psyche-out pronouncments, but this psycho is just too familiar to be disturbing. And Hopkins overdoes that unblinking-stare thing, revealing more of his eye drops than any devastating psychological sway. Which is where the film goes most wrong: With artfully staged grotesquerie taking the place of psychological build-up, there’s none of the internal tension that made both Manhunter and Silence memorable.

And there isn’t a single performance that comes close to the acting in Mann’s version, although the remake does have some firsts: Emily Watson’s first bad performance, as the assertive blind woman who comes between D. and his compulsions; and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deliberately (and hilariously) bad performance as the tabloid reporter who finds himself in D.’s panelled van. The van is one of several “tokens” from Silence—reminders that Ratner is aiming for the same level of seriousness—but his pandering to serial-killer shtick is smarmy instead of scary. The real point of Red Dragon is that Will moves on. It’s time Hollywood did, too.

—A.M.


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