Thursday, September 27, 2012

Igby Goes Down (2002): Cold to the F**king Bone

I once saw a TV documentary about the teenaged children of the super-rich in New York, the offspring of those multi-millionaires and billionaires who own the mansions in Long Island and have the office towers in Manhattan named after them. I was surprised at how most of these kids seemed to be acutely anxious. What was far more noticeable than the great luxuries they had access to was the obvious unremitting pressure they felt to live up to the fortunes their parents had made. In their world to have anything less than a high-achieving career would constitute a family scandal, and with such a career requiring constant attention and hard work they seemed sorrowfully aware that they could never really relax the way the rest of us occasionally do.

The young man, Igby, in this film (played, excellently, by Kieran Culkin) is from a 'good' East Coast family and is in a similar position to these children of millionaires. Igby Goes Down is a very sad movie in a way, a black comedy that skirts dangerously close to unbearable comedy, about the way parents' psychological problems affect you when you're a teenager and make you either hate them, pity them, or both. Its sharp satirical swipes at upper crust society reminded me of Vanity Fair and other 19th-century novels, and Jeff Goldblum plays an ultra-slick stepfather figure to Igby who's perhaps the most ridiculous and despicable character of all in the film; he's from a class of people who when literally caught with their trousers down are experts in deflecting attention away from themselves and implying there's something wrong with the person observing them. When Igby crosses him, he also has no qualms about pummelling the boy, who's half his size, into the ground. There are certain things he says which are telegraphed to us as evidence of his shallow, rigid, uncaring nature: 'I believe that certain people in life are meant to fall by the wayside, to serve as warnings to the rest of us' and 'Families should be run like businesses, with contracts between each family member'. We recognise that as Igby listens to this self-serving crap, he's groaning inwardly at the nature of the world he was born into. 

Still, it's Susan Sarandon, as the mother he refers to as 'the heinous one', who is Igby's main problem. We see the boy attending therapy sessions (with a sniffling, unsympathetic shrink who hits him across the face) and when we then cut to his imperious mother biting the head off a young Indian doctor, it's clear why he needs that therapy. In the middle section of the film Igby gets into a relationship with a girl called Sookie (Claire Danes) and when she betrays him to hook up with his older brother, Ollie (Ryan Phillipe) he tells her she doesn't understand what kind of family she's getting into. They're rigid and cold - 'cold to the fucking bone' - and no way would his mother ever accept her. Ollie, who's just as imperious as his mother, walks past him then, calling him a glutton for punishment to try to stand in their way, and Igby ends up in some Bohemian dive with drug addicts and drag queens, coming back to the family home for the final scene of the movie only to help out with his mother's assisted suicide. 

Igby's father, played by Bill Pullman, is the only vaguely sympathetic adult figure in his life and at the very start when we see Igby as a young boy smiling at the father's antics you see how a child can form a special bond with the more unhinged members of the adult community if they're the only ones who can show humour or warmth. But his father's life and character is a source of pain too. In that scene Igby is aged 6 or 7 perhaps (for the most part we see him in his late teens), and he witnesses his schizophrenic Dad come into the bathroom, go into the shower cubicle, and start tearing at his own face. Pullman then smashes the glass with his fist, and the little boy has to witness his dad lying there, his arm covered in blood, spouting on about this 'great weight' constantly coming down on him. With childhood experiences like this it's no wonder Igby isn't impressed by all the supposed good things in life adults tell him he must aim for. One conversation in the movie is about how great schools are supposed to shape you not squash you. But Igby cannot feel anything positive in what these 'great institutions' are trying to do for or to him; he can only feel the pain they cause him. He says his father went through the system, achieved everything, then in his 40's Igby feels he is just killing time till it's his turn to have a nervous breakdown too.

Some reviewers have compared the film to Catcher in the Rye, which is a measure of how sophisticated it is. It’s full of little throwaway complaints about the way the world is, which though contextualised as teenaged moaning, are obviously much more than that. For example, one character says that a reverse Darwinism seems to have taken over the world, where less evolved creatures are better equipped to survive than the more evolved ones. Since the film was made in 2002 it’s tempting to take this as a statement of complaint about Bush's America. The film to me ultimately seems to be about how the ideals and values of our Western societies, perhaps especially Anglo-Saxon societies (order, discipline, material success), when applied in isolation or in extremis, leave no room for human nature to breathe, and if as an adolescent you are forced to engage with this, it damages you, possibly for life. In the end all Igby wants to do is go abroad, away from the West, and get that 'Razor's Edge experience' as he describes it.... The director of Igby Goes Down is Burr Steers, who was also known as an actor in the 90’s in films like Last Days of Disco and Pulp Fiction. It’s one of only three films he’s directed, the other two being Zac Efron pictures. I haven’t seen them but I highly doubt they’re as incisive and refreshing as Igby. The film also contains great music by the Beta Band, Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay and the Dandy Warhols amongst others.

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