Igby escapes from his many boarding school failures and starts living in Manhattan.
Jason “Igby” Slocumb (Kieran Culkin) is a teenager from a wealthy but very dysfunctional family living on the East Coast. As the film opens, we focus in on a scene where Igby and his older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) are in the process of killing their mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) in her palatial Georgetown home. While this shocks us at first, we soon come to learn that this was all part of the demanding and dominating Mimi’s plan for her life: she had scheduled her own suicide rather than face the later stages of cancer. If the drugs she took didn’t work, the brothers were expected to finish the job. As we learn through the storyline, the men and boys in Mimi’s family were required to live up to her strict code of conduct and cater to her every whim, or beware the consequences. One of Igby’s great lines in the screenplay about his mother is, “I call her Mimi because Heinous One is a bit cumbersome. And Medea was already taken.” Besides Oliver, a haughty honors student at Columbia who has no use for his younger brother, Igby’s immediate family includes his stepfather D. H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum), who brokers New York City real estate deals and a series of mistresses to escape from his clueless wife, Bunny (Celia Weston). His father, Jason Sr. (Bill Pullman), had a serious mental breakdown trying to cope with Slocumb family life and has been confined to a mental hospital for the past ten years. (Jason Sr. is mostly seen in the film in flashbacks to the time when he was starting to lose it and Igby was 6 or 7 years old.) In the world of his family, Igby is considered a failure. Academic and discipline problems have caused him to be expelled from many of the best prep schools. When he is sent to military school by Mimi in retaliation for his failures, a hazing incident at the school (which is the basis for the title) makes Igby determined to escape and live on his own. All through his upbringing, it seems that no one in his family has given him a helping hand and Igby has become the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Even his name comes from a family joke — when he was little he couldn’t say the correct name of his stuffed “Digby” bear. When he did something wrong and lied about it, he would say “Igby did it”, so Mimi started calling him Igby and the name took.
Sookie helps Igby after he is beaten by Rachel.
The film proceeds with a combination of flashback scenes to events in the Slocumb family history, Igby’s capers to escape from school, and present day action that starts when Igby is asked by D. H. to spend the summer working for him in New York. Igby helps renovate a loft in one of D. H.’s properties, and visits him at his place in the Hamptons on the weekends. At one of D. H.’s parties he meets both Rachel (Amanda Peet), his father’s mistress and an artist who sets up her studio in the loft Igby worked on, and Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), a Bennington student taking a semester off, two women who come to have an influence in his life. When the summer is over, and Igby wants to hide out in New York, Rachel agrees to let him stay in the loft, which works out great in a number of ways until he accidentally walks in when D. H is visiting. Igby then has a brief affair with Sookie, after a chance meeting in the neighborhood, and for the first time in Igby’s life things seem to be going great. Sookie is charmed by his droll wit, acts concerned about his future, and helps him apply for his G.E.D. so he won’t have to return to high school. Everything is going great until Oliver shows up at the loft (tipped off by D. H.), tells Igby that his “little vacation is over”, offers to give Sookie a ride home, and soon has taken her away from Igby. The story line continues in a series of convoluted events, each revealing a little more about the principal characters until we return to the Georgetown mansion and Igby’s final meetings with Mimi that determine his ultimate future.
Igby and his mother attempt a last reconciliation.
Igby Goes Down is the latest in the Holden Caulfield “Catcher in the Rye” genre of films. It doesn’t particularly cover new material, but works because of the great acting performances, offbeat characters, and witty dialogue. Foremost is the performance of Kieran Culkin, who has emerged as one of our best young actors. His characterization of Igby shows poise, a fatalistic self-deprecating personality, and great comic delivery of the sophisticated lines he is given. Not only does he make Sookie laugh, but he makes the audience laugh, and when life beats down hard upon him, sometimes literally, he shows an inner resilience that allows him to somehow continue. At the same time, his acceptance of the strange hand life has dealt him has a real note of sadness to it, the perfect ying-yang of the comic mask. Jeff Goldblum’s performance in the role of D. H. Baines is equally worthy of note. On the surface he is all sophistication and charm, but underneath he has the capability to be both cold and vicious in his personal relationships. Even when he is caught with his pants down in the loft, nothing seems to faze him, as he casually zips up his pants and makes small talk with Igby. Yet later in the film, you see him suddenly strike in retribution — quite a stretch from his other “friendly guy” roles. Although Ryan Phillippe plays the least likeable character, the perfect yet humorless older brother, he also delivers some good lines and stories, and you sense that his life of perfection is his way of dealing with the emptiness of his family life and the fear that his father’s insanity may be hereditary. Susan Sarandon (as usual) delivers a strong performance as the out of control Mimi, who dominates everything in her life but her own mortality and tries to verbally destroy anyone who gets in her way or defies her. Although Sarandon isn’t in a lot of scenes, she makes a strong impact on the scenes she is in. She knows just how far over the edge to go as she verbally assails doctors, family members, or the maid. Writer-director Burr Steers has to be given a lot of credit for making this film what it is, especially when you consider that this is his first effort. Igby Goes Down is truly a character study, and that is emphasized by Steers’ cinematic style which inter cuts so many different elements rather than follow the path of a straight chronological story. He maintains a Noel Coward/Oscar Wilde type of tone throughout — casual in the way he presents sophisticated dialogue (and assumes you understand the literary references without explanation), casual in the way he presents sex scenes, and casual in the way that he intersperses the emotions of pain, adversity and sadness among the wit and humor. What finally emerges is the real truth about why Igby lives such a life of discontent: what Igby has been deprived of is any real love. Probably Igby would trade all of his wealth, privilege and sophisticated manners for either a loving family or a serious romance with a girl his age.
Igby and his brother Oliver wait for their mother to pass away.
Igby begins to learn the ways of women in the Manhattan warehouse.
Igby was brought up in a very formal and rigid upper class household, where even young boys were expected to wear suits and ties on most occasions. So when Igby finally escapes from this scene, he starts wearing black high top chucks. The chucks represent freedom from the tyranny of his family and give him a hipper look. There aren’t a lot of close up shots in the cinematography, but when they are shown, they are often a visual analogy for his new independence.
A spilled drink is an analogy of the relationship between Igby and Oliver.
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