In his re-view of Igby Goes Down, Erik Jaccard ponders the source of the American fascination with idle rich kids and Salingeresque “fucked-up youth” stories.
Igby Goes Down
Written and Directed by Burt Steers
Since Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, we seem to have developed an increasingly fervent taste for stories about fucked-up youth. This is not to say that we didn’t have those stories beforehand (we did—they’re called bildungsromans) or that we didn’t find them equally as entertaining. But there is something about the postwar ‘fucked-up youth’ story that continues to push buttons in the popular psyche. I’ve always thought it has something to do with the fact that the postwar settlement promoted the idea that the modern industrial world had everything figured out and that we were all a household appliance or bottle of pills away from perfect happiness. In this sense, whatever sub-genre of American realism we’re talking about here fits in snugly with that larger current of middle-class disaffection that has taken its place as the officially sanctioned flipside of postwar optimism, gleaming commodity culture, and the (Brave) New World Order. What’s more, being that they have not yet learned to behave, we love to hear about just how messy and imperfect our world is from the mouths of babes. They tell it like it is, especially when their vantage point emerges from within that thing we all take for granted as a known quantity. Whether that be suburban discomfort of the type we’ve all seen critiqued a thousand times before or a critique of the Rich from within Their own ranks, we somehow love hearing that not everything that is supposed to be roses and puppy dogs is actually so. It must surely mesh more cleanly with our own perception and experience of the world.
Burt Steers’ comedy Igby Goes Down takes its place among Salinger’s descendants with more than the usual comedic force and dramatic gravitas than we have come to expect from such a watered-down genre. Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin), the talented but troubled youngest son of a wealthy New York family, has bounced from boarding school to boarding school, exhibiting both a caustic wit and an uncanny talent for failure and expulsion. He is the king of cheeky backtalk, distrusts all forms of institutionalized education, and wants nothing more than to meet interesting, genuine people, smoke a joint or two, and enjoy the more human aspects of his life. However, his family, captained by his overbearing mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), and stewarded by his successful older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillipe), continues to try and fit him into the family mold. After being bounced from yet another boarding school (this time a military academy), Igby takes a summer job restoring Manhattan properties from his wealthy godfather, DH (Jeff Goldblum). Intended as a kind of course-correct for his wayward adolescence, Igby’s summer stint as a respectable laborer instead reinvests in him the idea that he has no desire to be as his parents would want him to be—respectable, successful, and fake. Choosing to go on the lam rather than face yet another boarding school, Igby meets a bevy of beautiful older women, among them the droll yet beautiful college student (Claire Danes) and an artist turned junkie with a heart of iron pyrite (Amanda Peet). Spurning the help of those like DH, for whom the world is a competitive rat race and the people in it merely props in his theater of success, Igby chooses exile and is only, finally, drawn back into his family by tragedy…or tragicomedy. I’ll let you decide whether matricide counts as either.
Like Catcher, the film is equal parts humorous and sad. Funny in the sense that we can watch it and, likely not being of the insanely rich East Coast upper crust, ridicule the quirks of those folks who seem to live on a different planet from the rest of us. But it’s sad in that the film, in between caustic jabs at pretentiousness, also manages to say a few things about families and human drama that transcend class. In my humble opinion, it’s aged quite well, and here’s why…
The comparative bit
Viewed in ten-year retrospective timeframe there is little to complain about in terms of how this film has aged. Nothing outside of the soundtrack seems all that dated or tired. Stylistically there is nothing particularly interesting about the film, though that doesn’t seem its goal. A film like this, which so consciously and actively plays its variation on the theme of upper-class disingenuousness, laid down so powerfully by Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, remains tied to a kind of realism that doesn’t depend on bells and whistles to get its point across. The idea, one would think, is that we can see just how nasty, savage, and barbaric rich folks can be simply by pointing a camera at them and watching them go. Of course, this story is more satirical than that and the particular rich folks we see all seem like caricatures of the rich folks the television and F. Scott Fitzgerald told us existed (and who led more exciting, enviable lives simply by existing). At the same time, most of the characters in the film seem fairly full, believable, and, if not timeless, then tied to a version of American life that we have come to accept as valid. A character like Susan Sarandon’s Mimi, for example, seems every bit as much at home in the 2000’s as she would have in the 1980s, or even the 1950s. This is probably because the energy of the film derives largely from a trans-generational critique of family and class relations that works as well here as it would have in those earlier decades. The neoliberal, quasi-Social Darwinist rhetoric spouted into Igby’s ear by his businessman godfather, DH, would be equally at home in the Reagan years, if not further back. In fact, DH’s dictum that families ought to be run like companies, based on contracts and business principles, seems perfectly at home in this grand year of our Ford, 2012. Equally as much, the fascination with the rich and their foibles seems to survive unabated from decade to decade, no matter how rambunctious or rebellious each successive generation’s youth becomes.
Steers is likely able to make a film like this—which so brazenly adapts the explicit social critique of The Catcher in the Rye for a 21st century audience—because a largely American movie going public still clamor for assorted media dealing with the foibles and ridiculous lives of either the extraordinarily pampered (Paris Hilton, the Gorgons—I mean, the Kardashians, The Hills, Gossip Girl, etc) or the insanely successful. It’s no coincidence that a show like Dallas has made a return in the last ten years, nor that there are people out there willing to sit through the hour-long vivisection that is Revenge, or the equally as lengthy root canal that is/was GCB (mercifully, the latter was cancelled after a brief run). It was in the last decade that you could turn on the television and watch a program called Dirty Sexy Money. At times it seems as if the point is for a largely middle class audience to confirm that those rich folks they either want to be or want to hate receive nothing but trouble for their money-grubbing ways, no matter whether they be franchised aristocrats or self-made nouveau riche entrepreneurs. On the other hand, the glut of media dealing with the rich seems to paradoxically confirm Fitzgerald’s observation in “The Rich Boy” that that the rich are somehow different from the rest of us rabble and therefore more worthy of attention.
It is perhaps undeniable, then, that as the prevailing winds of political and social discourse have shifted over the last ten years alongside the global financial crisis, Igby Goes Down is actually more, rather than less at home in the 2010s. In the last four years alone we have seen the tenor of public debate in the United States shift from foreign policy affairs to largely domestic, economic ones. From bank bailouts and trillion dollar deficits to the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, it now seems that everyone is talking about the rich in a way that belies our own popular fascination with them. In the world of Igby Goes Down, the rich demonstrate their humanity most acutely in times of calculated savagery, when their repressed tendencies towards cooperation and mutual understanding turn towards aggression and spite. While sad, this also makes for a grand spectacle. It confirms that we are both ‘better’ somehow for not being that way and worse in that we nonetheless continue to watch and glorify such savagery. This is at least one of the ways that Steers’ clever little film has remained, and will likely remain, continuously contemporary. However, it is not the most interesting thing about how well Igby has aged. As loathe as I am to engage the discourse of timelessness as a barometer for cultural value, I would also suggest that the film’s focus on family politics, youth, and growing up is what separates it from the pack of other would-be hangers on to the Salinger legacy. In order to explain that more fully, I now turn to my own ten year retrospective.
The personal bit
When I first watched this film I was one quarter away from finishing my college education and I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do with my life. In some ways I was still very much a frightened adolescent who had managed to spend five years away from the parental nest without ever getting both feet firmly over that comforting and familiar threshold. The idea of needing to go do something on my own scared the crap out of me, as did the idea of doing it with no guaranteed that I’d be any good at it. Furthermore, while this extremely common anxiety scared me, it also somehow made me mad. Even though I had no idea what I wanted to do or be, I also didn’t want anyone telling me how I ought to do or be those things. As I worked my way through that last Fall quarter, holding on desperately to my status as a student and dreading the turn into the New Year, I became adept at deflecting questions about what I was going to do with my life and, like many, somewhat bitter and sarcastic about the idea of the ‘real world’ intruding into the extended adolescent fantasy I’d been living since I was eighteen. I didn’t like the ‘real world’ much then. It seemed too much like a bizarre arena that slowly drove people crazy, unhappy, or into various types of hypocrisy and dishonesty. Looking back now, I can see how silly that was, and that there is no more of the ‘real world’ that is dishonest than there is that is honest. My rejection of this nebulous real world had much more to do with a fear of it than any kind of genuine criticism, even though I had convinced myself that my stance was largely based on the latter. Not surprisingly, then, my early-20s self gravitated towards films likeIgby Goes Down, which feature a seemingly precocious youth intent on evading the real world at all costs.
There has always been something of the disaffected, sarcastic, weakling know-it-all in me, which means I crushed on this film in even harder than normal in 2002, all the way from the top of Claire Danes’ crimped and privileged little head to the bottom of Kieran Culkin’s scuffed loafers. Never mind the fact that I had never experienced the level of affluence and emotional indifference that here seems to turn people into cold, soulless automatons. Nor had I ever rebelled to quite the extent that Kieran Culkin’s Igby does, getting kicked out of school after school, brazenly rejecting most of the ‘help’ offered to him, and going out of his way to follow his own moral and intellectual compass. Come to think of it, the discrepancy between my own teenage pretensions to rebellion and Igby’s exaggerated upper-class malcontent was precisely the point. Igby was the angsty, rebellious adolescent I’d always wanted to be, ballsy enough to flaunt all the privileges offered to him and smart enough to do it in such a way as to make his revolt seem justified, even necessary.
This necessity, for Igby at least, derives from the way in which the world he inhabits—and the market-driven dictates which guide it—turn those around him into mechanical props, cold, cruel, and inhuman. It is a world that dehumanizes his father (Bill Pullman) to the point of mental collapse and seems to have disfigured the family’s overbearing matriarch to such an extent that the most human thing to happen to her is her own (planned) death at the hands of her sons. It is a world in which both art and artists are consigned to the role of interchangeable commodities in a larger marketplace dominated by greed and recklessness. And it is a world in which the supposed loves and securities of family relations are reduced to machinations by which that world reproduces itself and its own granite-cold neuroses. For Igby, then, the only way to be human is to be Other to this parade of dishonesty, wherein inhumanity masquerades as truth and all that is good is twisted towards some kind of false end. The point for Igby then becomes curving that dishonesty towards some kind of truth, even if it is of the ultimately sarcastic and self-defeating variety.
The fun, dialectical twist to stories like Igby Goes Down is that the children under discussion are nearly always ironic manifestations of their own parents’ dreams and desires, and of the larger class spectrum in which they are meant to play such a meaningful role. Educated at an array of prestigious East Coast prep schools, parochial institutions, and finally, a military academy, Igby is clearly a clever young man, well-versed in the kind of capital ‘C’ Culture that the older folks around him seem to wear like haute couture. He is, therefore, a success, but only ironically so. In contradistinction to his older brother, Ollie (an insanely well-manicured and sociopathic-looking Ryan Phillippe), Igby uses culture not as a bridge into the adult world for which he has been groomed, but as a buffer against it. Literary references, which are consciously worked into Igby’s not-so-subtle tirades on the world’s hypocritical phoniness, are used not to mark Igby’s insider status (well-bred folks quote Shakespeare and Rilke, etc), but rather to legitimize his sarcastic and self-imposed exile. Clearly bred to play a role in a larger social and family drama of which he wants no part, Igby demonstrates the depth of its success by manifesting and embodying its failures.
At a more personal level, Igby’s distaste for his family stems directly from that all-too common fear that, in the end, he will become them (or perhaps that he already has). His ironic take on their falsity, while playful and well-intentioned, nonetheless makes use of the same attitude they seem to hold towards their own life. This is no better exemplified than in the contrast between Igby and Ollie. While seemingly at opposite ends of a moral spectrum (Ollie ‘numb’ and jaded and Igby warm and hopeful), both are their mother’s sons and neither seems capable of engaging with the world directly or of believing in its potential. What I mean by this is that both brothers start from a place of disgust and exhaustion, with their family and their social milieu. Where Ollie internalizes these feelings, Igby rejects them outright. But in rejecting them, Igby nevertheless clings to them. As much as he wants to project himself out beyond their orbit, he keeps coming back (or at least, he has kept coming back—he is a teenager after all). Whether from necessity/dependence, pessimism, or love, Igby never entirely dislodges himself from the things he otherwise feels compelled to critique.
The easiest thing to accept about all of this was that it seemed natural to want to rib one’s parents in this way, to consciously or unconsciously reject the things they wanted for you. What’s more, because a story like Igby features such savage, cruel villains as parents, this process became even easier to project onto my own situation, even if my own situation didn’t call for it. I felt I had mastered the more pessimistic version of this pose by the time I was twenty-three, when all well-meaning entreaties by my parents or family could be turned into subtle critiques on the values and pretensions of adults who seem, from the vantage point of a know-it-all, to be utterly naïve or, worse, consciously deceitful about how the world works. The problem is that my parents aren’t really all that bad. They’re quite reasonable, level-headed people actually. They do good works, they help others, and they have been extremely kind and generous to both myself and my sister. Hardly the type of situation that warrants a major personal revolution, especially considering that there are actually terrible parents out there in the world.
Yet, in my early 20s I often found myself unfathomably angry with them. Occasionally there was a reason; oftentimes it was some affective dinosaur I’d dredged up from my childhood, some residual divorce trauma or something I was mad about and couldn’t explain. I don’t think I needed much of an excuse. Frankly, not then knowing who the fuck I was, it was difficult to determine which part of that unstable chemistry they were to blame for. So I blamed them for everything: my upbringing, the things I was supposed to want in life, and what seemed like a dizzying trajectory into an uncertain future, not to mention all of the ways I felt I had been forced into a routine and regimented collection of assumptions about the world. Going to college, having a job, finding a mate, settling down to collect ornamental furniture, and all those other middle-class niceties that I can only now conceive of at least offering to the children I don’t yet have, became stubborn pressures to be resisted at all costs, no matter how well-intentioned.
It’s taken me ten years to figure out just how selfish I could be with my own well-intentioned family unit, who have never come anywhere close to the den-dwelling Hampton Zombies Igby deals with in this film. Re-viewing the film this time around I was reminded of just how bitterly amusing it is to watch a teenager destroy everything his family has provided for him in the name of morality (and really, the film is quite funny at times; at others it tries too hard) and intellectual independence. At the same time, this viewing also confirmed to me that I wish I had been a little easier on my folks. I probably would have grown up faster if I had, though I may not have been quite as amusing. Well, scratch that. I’m not sure how amusing I ever was. The problem with both Igby and myself is that we let ourselves mistake sarcastic evasion for maturity and personal evolution. I hid in my barbs, quirks, and tricks and hoped that no one would see that I was actually pretty damn terrified of the world. Though Igby’s escape seems more justified in that his family is all that much worse, he does the same thing. Whether this film’s finale is meant to signal a move away from that evasion and into a more active engagement with his own life is unclear. What I do know is that watching this film at 33 has had a profound effect on how I recall myself at 23, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Things that didn’t make the final cut, but which I nonetheless find most entertaining:
- While the soundtrack for this film boasts a veritable who’s who of sensitive, millennium-era indie rock (Hey, soundtrack dude, even though his movie was later, Zach Braff called and he would like Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic” back.), I nonetheless give it the cred it deserves for resuscitating The Dandy Warhols, last seen decorating Good Will Hunting. It’s actually one of their least interesting songs, but I still enjoy rocking out to “Boys Better.”
- Not to get into broken record territory on issues of coiffure (See my review-ending thoughts on Aaron Eckhart’s hair in Possession), but one must wonder who decided to take the crimper to Claire Danes (I’m simply following the Mitch Hedberg method for naming things (take what the thing does and add –er); I have no idea if that’s what you call the thing used to crimp hair). I’m not saying I don’t like it, but I’m also not saying it doesn’t make her look a little bit more like a poodle.
- I have to admit that I didn’t find the pot-talk and ‘amusing’ banter nearly as amusing this time around. The bit about Igby pegging Sookie as a vegetarian based on the neatness of her joints might have seemed funny in that Tarantino-esque, let’s focus on one minute thing as closely as possible and then make an entire verbal exchange out of it way when I was 23; not so much now.
- Apparently Culkin and Danes are the same height (5’6”), yet somehow Culkin manages to look significantly shorter than her in this film. I’m thinking it might be the whole prep school imp in a blazer thing that shortens him, while she always seems trussed up in slimming outfits that emphasize her long waifishness.
- I find Jeff Goldblum amusing. No, devilishly amusing. I think it’s the smirk. However, when I saw Goldblum sitting there in his loft, pants around his ankles, with what I will chastely and somewhat prudishly call a ‘pelvic bulge’ staring me in the face, I lost all trace of my erstwhile devilish amusement. Yes, the happy, humorous Goldblum broner wilted. Now, and forever after, that trademark wiseass smirk will heretofore be associated with that bulge. Even when I watch him as Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (what is perhaps his most gleeful role ever), there it will be. Damn you and your pelvic bulge, Jeff.
- At times this film is so aware of its own cleverness that is becomes cloying. Example:
Sookie: “Mimi? You call your mother Mimi?”
Igby: “‘Heinous One’ is a bit cumbersome. Medea was already taken.”
Hahahahahahahahahaha! Get it! He has a vocabulary the size of Jeff Goldblum’s pelvic bulge! He’s read Euripides! Oh, savants these days. This is the type of shit that my 23 year-old self lapped up but which now makes me want to yawn a little. No, a lot. It makes me want to let out a big, gaping, barbaric YAWP of a yawn.
- I’m convinced Ryan Phillippe is best when it’s clear that he’s not taking himself seriously as some kind of frost-tipped playboy (a la Cruel Intentions). His part in Gosford Park, in which Phillippe plays an American actor playing a Scottish valet to an American movie producer, is one of those roles. This one is nice because it treads the same ground. Phillippe’s Oliver Slocumb is meant to be some kind of emotionally stunted cruelty-dispenser, numbed to the ways of his savage upper crust world, and exasperated as only a numb debutante can be by Igby’s wannabe Bohemianism. Yet Phillippe plays him so stiffly, with such droll seriousness, that I got the feeling he was very much aware of how much of a tool the character is, and how much fun he could have with that toolishness.
- Bill Pullman: good crazy guy impersonation there at the end.
- Reading the title, one would not be held accountable for thinking there was something not exactly PG-13 about Igby Goes Down.
- All Uncle Buck nostalgia aside, I think Kieran is the most interesting Culkin and this, one of the more interesting roles a Culkin has played. I also enjoy younger brother Rory. Then there’s that other guy that was in that Michael Jackson video that one time.