Igby Goes Down is an up-to-the-minute coming of age story–a Catcher in the Rye for a more cynical age–and its hero, Jason ‘Igby’ Slocumb, Jr. (Kieran Culkin), is a Holden Caulfield for the 21st century. From a moneyed family, he’s 17, alienated, bouncing from school to school, a black sheep rebelling against the world in which he has grown up, a world that has neither earned his respect nor provided a single role model worthy of emulation.
Burr Steers, who debuts with Igby both as writer and director, comes bucking into the cinematic arena like a seasoned cowboy. He’s made a fresh, accomplished film in marked contrast to some of the underwhelming recent efforts of the established but tired wunderkinds–Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, Mendes’ Road to Perdition, Sayles’ Sunshine State.
Igby’s mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon, dead-on once again), is vain, spoiled, judgmental, demanding, and domineering. She’s riding a seesaw of uppers and downers–a prime example of the legal addictions of the rich. His father, Jason (excellent Bill Pullman with not enough to do here), is a sweet guy who has retreated from reality in a schizophrenic haze, feeling crushed by the pressures of life. Igby’s brother, Oliver (Ryan Pillippe) is a handsome, ambitious preppy who invests new meanings in the words "selfish" and "self-serving." Mimi’s ice-water-for-blood flows in Oliver’s veins as well. Trying to explain Igby’s erratic behavior, Mimi says, "His creation was an act of animosity. Why shouldn’t his life be?"
Then there’s Igby’s godfather, D.H. Banes (Jeff Goldblum), who has a boozy wife at home (Kathleen Gati), but seems inordinately close to Mimi, as well as maintaining young Rachel (Amanda Peet) in a stylish loft. D.H. is a real estate mogul who believes that "families should be run like companies." (In view of current corporate events, that line takes on added resonance.)
Rachel tries hard to please D.H.; the reasons for her dependency become clear before long. In a bitterly sad scene, she dresses up in Chanel, trying to please D.H. when she meets him for lunch. He walks out on her; she’s completely misunderstood her role–she’s not his fashionable peer, she’s his disposable bimbo. Rachel’s friend Russell (Jared Harris) is thrown in to spoof pretentiousness in the art world, or, perhaps more accurately, artistic pretension in the drug world.
The one near soul-mate Igby finds is Sookie Sapperstein (Clare Danes), a Bennington undergrad (on a leave of absence) who shares some of his values and his bed. She was adopted: "I was, like, their vanity project," she says.
Igby Goes Down deftly creates individualized characters who are not just notches in a checklist of satirical targets. Unlike The Royal Tenenbaums, which covers overlapping territory but doesn’t achieve a single three-dimensional character, these are people who feel real and about whom one can care–one way or another. The film mercilessly satirizes contemporary life among the affluent and at the same time is uproariously full of very funny lines (a level of wit also notably missing from the Tenenbaums). Richly observant of contemporary mores and very dark, indeed, in its view of the world it inhabits, Igby Goes Down never sacrifices the humanity of its characters. Before Igby rides off into the sunset, it is made clear (without sentimentality) that, for all their mistreatment of him, Igby retains a deep and loving connection to his family. Having experienced these rites of passage, however, he now has a more accurate perspective on the contradictions and complexities inherent in these relationships. He is free to move on.