Richly Imagined 'Igby Goes Down'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 20, 2002

File Igby in the same drawer with all the other poor little rich boys. With a charming if mad father, a cruel if beautiful mother, a rich if vague godfather, a stuffy if successful older brother, and a nice if not vulgarly huge trust fund, he's a mess. He's Holden Caulfield on crack, and he's going to tell you about all this madman stuff that happened to him around Christmas.

So Burr Steers's "Igby Goes Down" is the new "Catcher in the Rye," and it boasts many of that classic's virtues: a dead-on sense of how rich kids live and talk today, a sense of the melancholy of a dysfunctional family, and some great dark laughs.

Igby (Kieran Culkin) is one of those lads to the manor born who want, on the principle that no good deed should go unpunished, to burn the manor down. He'd like it better if his mother were in it. Mimi (Susan Sarandon) is all imperious beauty and contempt. She treats her younger son as he treated her crazy husband, which is as a minor annoyance who exists only to suggest an interesting flaw in the overall perfection of her existence. She's the type who never has a nice thing to say about anybody, except, of course, herself.

The movie opens as Igby kills her. Let's say it gets our attention; then, in Steers's effective if crude narrative scheme, the film backtracks a few weeks (and, occasionally, a few decades) to show how all this came to pass, how he and brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) ended up at her bedside spooning mashed sleeping pills down her throat and then complaining about the loudness of her wheezing as all her systems shut down.

The longer story: Igby's wealthy dad, Jason (Bill Pullman), nice guy, somehow lost marbles Nos. 1-499 long about his 40th birthday, and Marble 500 isn't up to the strain. One of Igby's most terrifying memories – well realized, with Kieran's brother Rory as Igby the younger – centers on a horrifying moment right near the end, when Dad, muttering incomprehensibly, got into the shower fully dressed, turned it on, then smashed his way through the glass shower door to add his own pulsing blood to the mess. It isn't pretty, and it dramatizes Igby's primal fear, which is that underneath his charm and insouciance is the same time bomb, waiting to free all his own marbles.

The shorter story: Igby, just kicked out of his 20th or so prep school (like dear Holden all those years ago), is now set up in a military school where – big surprise – he hates it, and is now on the lam, living in other people's apartments, trying to flee both his godfather and his brother, who have responsible plans for him. Nothing like being a Man on the Run to bring out the maternal side of the opposite sex, so soon enough he is involved with his godfather's heroin-addicted mistress and a Bennington dropout, played by Amanda Peet and Claire Danes. Others move in and out of the picaresque tale, which acquires force as it hurtles toward the ending we know Mimi will encounter.

It works so well because it's so real. Steers has given enough interviews to suggest how rooted in autobiography the story is, how he himself was a part of the old-family Georgetown-East Side-Hamptons axis, how he did not so very well in a variety of prep schools and how he ultimately broke free, became an actor and then a director. Clearly, he was paying attention the whole time.

As a director, Steers has Jeff Goldblum, as D.H. Baines, Igby's godfather and a real estate magnate in New York and the Hamptons, always toting an expensive glass full of ice and Scotch. Steers has thought hard about how these people hold these glasses. Goldblum's Baines carries that glass as if it's a sex object. You can see the man enjoying the glass, the chill of it spreading through his fingers, the heft of it solid and plummy, the comfort of its promise as it tempts him toward numb bliss and makes all the disagreeable things go far away. It's like an advanced-placement class in glassology. You have to either have jillions or hang out among people with jillions to hold a glass so well.

Then, Steers gets something out of Sarandon not seen in years. She is especially vivid as Mimi with the soignée majesty of the woman who uses her beauty as both cudgel and rapier: She beats some men with it, and stabs others. None of them, including her sons, escapes without leaving blood behind. And she loves every second of it, as she loves being Mimi the Great, who lives on her own terms and will not live on anybody else's.

And although I hate Igby – he's snotty, rich, emotionally brutal, cynical, treacherous, vindictive, manipulative – I also love him. You can, truly, feel his pain. He has been shaped as a character not simply assumed as an autobiographical mandate. (Young writers drawn to an autobiographical mode usually don't work hard enough on representations of themselves; Steers does.) But I also love his triumph.

For that is the meaning of the movie, and of the title. Though "Igby Goes Down" seems at first glance to be about a collapse, as in a computer system going down, I think the meaning is more specialized than that, and it's something Steers would know from his snooty G-town upbringing. This is the phrase "going down" in the Oxbridge vernacular, as one goes down from Oxford, meaning one leaves the school and goes on to life. That's what happens to Igby, and that's the story of the movie: He went down. Or as we commoners would put it, the guy beat the rap and split to warmer climates. He got out alive.

IGBY GOES DOWN (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, drug use and sexual encounters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company