Young Kieran Culkin holds his own against a stellar ensemble in “Igby Goes Down,” a family comedy so dark it turns “The Royal Tennebaums” into latter-day Bradys. MGM is mulling the release of this odd duck, which alternates between true originality and fragmented digressions. Pic will prove a tough sell in all but the most urban markets, although cast is too A-list for “Igby” to head straight down to the vid store.
Scripted and helmed by edgy first-timer Burr Steers, tale begins with Culkin’s rebellious title character and more conservative older brother Ollie (Ryan Phillippe) watching their mom Mimi (Susan Sarandon) on a snoring jag. Then they smother her with a plastic bag. The reasons for this are unfolded, if only vaguely, in pic-long flashback that finds a much younger protag (played by topliner’s kid brother, Rory) witnessing the gradual breakdown of a volatile dad (Bill Pullman) drinking and smoking himself into oblivion.
Cut to a near-present in which the teen Igby is running away from his latest punishment school — this one a New Jersey military academy where the pic’s title is intoned, during one of many ritual beatings.
From there on in, after Ig uses his rich mom’s credit card to move into Manhattan, he’s pretty much smacked down by everyone else he comes in contact with, including surrogate dad R.H. (Jeff Goldblum), a Donald Trump type. While his wife dithers in the Hamptons, R.H. keeps mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet) in a spare SoHo loft. When our hero starts crashing there, too, he finds that Rachel is getting hard drugs from Russel (Jared Harris), a would-be conceptual artist.
Igby also meets Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), a slightly older Bennington student. Sookie’s so jaded, she can only tell Igby how funny he is, laughter repping just a little too much effort. He falls for the Botticelli-locked damsel, but she is not immune to his bro’s oilier charms. It’s only one of the many betrayals the adolescent takes for granted as a lifelong legacy of disappointment.
Steers puts a lot of balls in the air, but no one, including Igby, gets developed far enough for viewers to really know and care about them. Rachel’s glamorous rise and precipitous fall, for example, happens so quickly the effect is blunted. The enmity between the two brothers is not sufficiently explained, except by dialogue constantly laying blame at Mimi’s door.
Problem here may have been casting of Sarandon, who just naturally comes across as too warm to match her angry boys’ descriptions of her. Conversely, Goldblum fares best with the most underwritten major part; with his expert physical timing and some surprising outbursts of menace, he gets laughs and shudders out of the simplest lines.
Much of the best chatter comes from Culkin. The young thesp, also seen currently in “The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys,” has just the right mixture of arrogance and vulnerability to pull off a difficult, Holden Caulfield-like role.
All the players suggest far more than is written, but this is to little avail as pic always favors cleverness over coherence. Danes and Peet are equally good at playing brittle, impenetrable destroyers — the only kind of woman depicted here.
Pic’s single biggest flaw, and the easiest to fix, is a browbeating music score that manages to underline pic’s wild incoherence in tone and style. Soundtrack breaks into four distinct approaches: Hallmark-card treacle, campy Holiday-for-Strings spoofs, thumping electronica, and emotion-laden alt-rock — culminating in a Travis cover of the Band’s “The Weight” that actually finds Igby picking up his bag exactly when the singer grabs his.
Production design offers exactly the kind of gold-hewed tones you’d expect in Upper West Side and Jersey mansion settings. The result, while fluidly shot and edited throughout, is so insular it makes Whit Stillman’s rich kid banter seem mainstream, and the loudly dubbed dialogue adds to the sense of hermetically sealed artifice. Steers, who has an undeniable talent for the poison-dipped bon mot, is a nephew to Gore Vidal, who makes an uncredited cameo as a befuddled cleric.