This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Holden Caulfield formed the mold and Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr. fits it perfectly, in "Igby Goes Down," an inspired example of the story in which the adolescent hero discovers that the world sucks, people are phonies, and sex is a consolation. Because the genre is well established, what makes the movie fresh is smart writing, skewed characters, and the title performance by Kieran Culkin, who captures just the right note as an advantaged rich boy who has been raised in discontent.
Igby is the child of a malevolently malfunctioning family. His mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), is a tart, critical, perfectionist mandarin ("I call her Mimi because Heinous One is a bit cumbersome"). His father, Jason (Bill Pullman), went through meltdown and is in a mental hospital, staring into space. His stepfather, D. H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum), is a slick operator who converts both lofts and the young girls he installs in them. His brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), is a supercilious Columbia student who regards Igby as a species of bug. Igby, like Citizen Kane before him, has been thrown out of all the best schools, and early in the movie he escapes from a military school and hides out in New York City.
Of course, a boy with his advantages is fortunate even in hideouts. He has an understanding meeting with his stepfather, finds shelter in one of his lofts, and soon is on very good terms with Rachel (Amanda Peet), his father's mistress, who is an artist in every respect, except producing anything that can be considered art. Through Rachel he meets Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), a Bennington student who likes him because he makes her laugh. Among the lessons every young man should learn is this one: All women who like you because you make them laugh sooner or later stop laughing, and then why do they like you? The movie has a fairly convoluted plot, involving who is sleeping with whom, and why, and who finds out about it, and what happens then. There is also the problem of the older brother, who does not make women laugh, which may be his strong point. The Goldblum character is especially intriguing, as a charmer with unlimited personal style and a hidden vicious streak.
Movies like this depend above all on the texture of the performances, and it is easy to imagine "Igby Goes Down" as a sitcom in which the characters don't quite seem to understand the witty things they're saying. All of the actors here have flair and presence, and get the joke, and because they all affect a kind of neo-Wildean irony toward everything, they belong in the same world. It is refreshing to hear Igby refer to his "Razor's Edge experience" without the movie feeling it is necessary to have him explain what he is talking about. The Culkins are approaching brand-name status, but the thing is, the kids can act. Kieran emerges here as an accomplished, secure comic actor with poise and timing, and there is still another younger brother, Rory, who appears as a younger Igby. Kieran's role is not an easy one. He is not simply a rebellious, misfit teenager with a con man's verbal skills, but also a wounded survivor of a family that has left him emotionally scarred. One of the movie's touching scenes has him visiting his father in the mental hospital, where his father's total incomprehension suggests a scary message: I don't understand my family or anything else, and I've given up thinking about it.