Kieran Culkin stands in front of a mirror in Igby Goes Down, the darkly hilarious, unexpectedly heartbreaking new film that should make him a star. Yes, he is that good. Of course, you can’t see Kieran (at nineteen, he’s the fourth of seven Culkin siblings) in a mirror without flashing back to brother Macaulay, then ten years old, slapping his cheeks in shrieking delight at his own reflection in 1990’s Home Alone, the megahit that put Mac and the troubled Culkins (their unmarried mom and dad fought for custody and control) on the map. Delight isn’t in the cards for Igby Slocomb, the seventeen-year-old Kieran plays with such hard-ass verve and unsentimental vulnerability. In the mirror, Igby’s face is bruised and bleeding (he gets smacked around a lot by friends, family, even his shrink) as he mouths the words, “I feel this great, great pressure coming down on me.” Igby is a rich kid who watched his father, Jason (Bill Pullman), say those same words before the old man went suicidally schizophrenic. Now Igby is determined not to go down like his dad. That means declaring war on his dysfunctional mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), an acid-tongued pill popper who ships him off to a Midwest military school, where cadets beat him with broomsticks, and his brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), a young Republican whom Igby claims is majoring in fascism at Columbia. Like Holden Caufield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Igby is adolescent rebellion incarnate.
Burr Steers, a former actor (Pulp Fiction) who makes a strong debut as a screenwriter and film director with Igby, may not be in Salinger’s artful league, but it’s clear he knows this world of privilege. The script is sharply observant even when Steers tries to cram too much in. No matter. A surfeit of ambition is hardly a fault. Igby Goes Down sustains a buoyant spirit, despite its brushes with tragedy (including an assisted suicide). Steers is generous to all his characters, creating juicy roles that the cast bites into with relish. On the lam in New York, Igby crashes in a loft where his adulterous godfather, D.H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum, playing smarm to perfection), stashes his mistress, Rachel (Amanda Peet). Igby is thrilled when Rachel jumps his bones, but he can see she’s a junkie with a fragile hold on her disguise as a free spirit. Peet is sublime in the role, finding the grieving heart in a character a lesser actress could have played as a slutty loser.p>hat’s the thing with this movie: It keeps springing surprises. Claire Danes is great fun as Sookie Saperstein, a know-it-all Bennington student who is willing to go to bed with this “furious boy” and his ready sense of irony. “You call your mother Mimi?” she asks. Says Igby, “Heinous One is a bit cumbersome, and Medea was already taken.” Sarcasm is Igby’s best weapon against emotional battering, even as he slides into drug dealing after Sookie leaves him for Oliver (a rare plot misstep), and he endures a final face-off with his mother on her deathbed. Sarandon expertly mines the scene’s gallows humor. But Culkin touches a raw nerve, letting it all bleed as Igby finally drops a lifetime of defenses. You don’t expect grit and grace notes in a movie built for laughs like Igby Goes Down. Things are looking up.