Igby Goes Down (2002)
The closest we’ll probably ever get to a Catcher in the Rye adaptation.
Igby Goes Down is about teenage boy from a well-off family who runs away to NYC before his mom sends him to yet another prep school that he will inevitably get himself kicked out of. So he shacks up with his well-off godfather, works under him as a carpenter, but then he quits that noise to sell weed door-to-door, starts knocking boots with his godfather’s mistress and eventually falls for a more realistic, similarly-minded girl amidst his efforts to escape from the mold that his family’s forcing him into.
Sure sounds like the life and times of Holden Caulfield to me…only without all the doobage and that funny business with the godfather’s backdoor woman.
It’s hard to watch or write about this movie without continually going back to Catcher not only due to the similarity in context, but also because of my similar reactions to both at different periods in my life. I was a high school sophomore the first time I read Catcher, and I hated. I didn’t get the hype, I thought Holden was a bum, I wasn’t on the bandwagon that every other 16-year-old classmate in my all-boys prep school seemed to riding high on. Then this movie comes along that very same year, word on the street is that everyone loves it even though I have no idea what it’s about, and I wind up having the exact same adverse reaction. Chances are I probably needed to get out more in high school and could have afforded to get in trouble a little more often instead of working on unlocking all the cheats in GoldenEye every day after school, but either way, these two didn’t gel.
Then again, that’s the great thing about this movie and that might be the greatest thing about Catcher. Flash forward to my sophomore year of college, I give the book one more shot after it gets assigned to me one more time, and everything clicks, I fall in love with it and it remains in my Top Ten to this day. Flash even farther forward to a month or so ago when I picked this up from the library in a wildly belated attempt to pay homage to Salinger’s passing, the same damn thing happens and here I am giving it an 8. It’s probably more true with Catcher than it is with Igby, but they’re both stories worth revisiting at different points in life because the meaning changes with the individual reading or watching them.
So for starters, big props to writer/director Burr Steers on this one. Considering that he’s going off a novel which I hope never gets truly adapted to film since no script, director or cast can do it justice and so generations of impressionable high schoolers will actually have to read the damn book instead of turning to Hollywood’s bastardized version just to pass the midterm, I was surprisingly pleased with the end result. I really dig the way he puts his own little modern spin on Holden’s story by making Igby darker and even more lost – if that’s even the right word – than Salinger’s creation. Nothing against Holden – because Igby never drops the same kind of knowledge, heart or wisdom that Holden does – but Igby fits far more into the image of a 21st Century boy than Holden would.
He’s easy to relate to in a lot of the ways that Holden is. For starters, he’s beyond sarcastic and he’s fucking hilarious. When his mom dies, he breaks the news to by calling up friends of the family, asking with full politeness in his voice if they remember his mom, then following up with, “Yeah, here’s the thing…she’s dead,” before slamming down the receiver and moving on down the list. There’s also a choice little fake story he tells to his former teacher/current weed-purchaser about how his brother (who he despises and the teacher loved) is in critical condition after biking through Central Park, catching sight of his own reflection in his rear-view mirror and being so distracted by his own beauty that he nosedived into the pavement, but Igby does a much better job telling it than I do.
But aside from all the debauchery and wise-assery, there’s a lot of substance to Igby, a lot of which ties into his close yet estranged relationship with his schizophrenic father played by the great and wildly under-appreciated Bill Pullman. There aren’t a whole lot of moments where we get to see Igby’s dad since they’re all flashbacks that go from when he slowly started slipping to the point where he was living in a padded cell, but what make those moments stand out are both Pullman’s memorable performance and his character’s relationship with Igby as the only adult figure he actually cares about and can relate to. He’s like was Phoebe was to Holden in a way, but I might.
From the morbid laughs to those glimmers of sincerity, Steers really does find a swell balance between the two and give his cast a ton of sharp, fresh stuff to work with.
And as for the cast, Kieran Culkin (who will hopefully get on a roll in the wake of Scott Pilgrim) is spot-on as Igby; Ryan Phillipe who has always struck me as painfully ho-hum is surprisingly good as his older brother Oliver; Claire Danes who’s never done much for me either is really good as Igby’s object of desire, Sookie; Susan Sarandon continues her life-long streak of being one of the top actresses in the game as Igby’s bitchtacular mom, Mimi; Amanda Peet does her thing as the godfather’s woman on the side, Rachel; and the immortal Jeff Goldblum is unsurprisingly awesome as Igby’s godfather, D.H. That guy can do no wrong in my book.
Like most every other imitation, tribute or poser out there, Igby Goes Down isn’t in the same league as The Catcher in the Rye and doesn’t nearly bear the same degree of emotional weight or capture the same timeless voice of teen angst, but for what it’s worth, it’s as good as they come as far as movies are concerned. I love characters like Igby, I love his ingrained rebellion from a society that writes you off if you’re not moving with the herd, and, to be honest, it’s those kind of characters that keep me sane some days. Regardless of the obvious comparisons it draws, Igby is a wonderfully dark, funny and unexpectedly genuine trip with a solid cast and a solid script backing it all up. Always helps when you end up liking a movie exponentially more the second time around and almost ten years later, but who knows, just might be whistlin’ a different tune a decade from now.
But come on, how can I possibly resist anything with Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum in it?