“The Only Living Boy in New York” is the new movie from director Marc Webb, who made “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel (as well as the cookie-cutter child-genius drama “Gifted”), and it’s the first film he’s directed since “(500) Days of Summer” — yes, eight years ago — in which you can really feel the prickly pulse of his sensibility. It’s like “The Graduate” recast as a glibly literate slacker comedy with an entangled kink or two.
The hero, Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), is a gently acerbic rebel preppie who is spending his life figuring out what he wants to do with his life. He’s a would-be fiction writer coping with a world in which highly personalized art is disappearing — at least, as a monetizable career. And it’s not like that’s the only thing on the wane. The general erosion of middle-class security actually influences the way you watch a movie like this one, since you can’t help but be aware of how much Thomas’s alienation is intertwined with privilege.
His father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), runs a publishing imprint he built from the ground up, and he keeps asking Thomas why he’s wasting his time living on the downscale Lower East Side. But the way it looks to us, Thomas gets to live on the Lower East Side (and, when he feels like it, to slum with his parents in their Upper West Side brownstone). He gets to attend tony literary parties and dither his way toward a profession. And when he’s out with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), a tart-tongued beauty who’s already slipped into the let’s-just-be-friends zone, and he spies his father kissing a woman other than his wife, he gets to trail the mysterious mistress (Kate Beckinsale) like a stalker-detective, and then he gets to sleep with her. It all sounds a bit sordid (sharing a paramour with your dad!), but for Thomas it’s a way of acting out the resentment he feels toward the icy remote father who never respected his literary ambitions.
It’s also a way of growing up. The catalyst for Thomas’s adventures is W.F. Gerald, a mysterious all-knowing alcoholic author, played with gruffly jaded glee by Jeff Bridges, who befriends Thomas on the stairwell of their apartment building and invites him up for a drink. Gerald’s apartment is empty except for a table and chairs and a liquor bottle; that seems to be all he needs, but he also claims to be wealthy. He coaxes the kid to reveal himself, and since Gerald comes on like a coach, therapist, anything-goes libertine philosopher chum, and surrogate dad all rolled into one, it doesn’t take long before Thomas is doing just that.
You might say that Gerald, with his enigmatic interest in Thomas, isn’t all that he seems to be, though it isn’t entirely clear what he seems to be. Yet Bridges, with a growl of whisky and cigarettes and a world-weary pensée for every occasion, makes him compelling company. The other actors are good too — Brosnan as the arrogant cosmopolitan father, Cynthia Nixon as his vulnerable in-the-dark wife, and Beckinsale, combative and alluring in what, in Allan Loeb’s script, is still a bit of an underwritten character.
It’s Callum Turner who makes his mark. Taking on a role originally slated to be played by Miles Teller, this 27-year-old British model and actor has a fascinating look — tall and handsome in a neurasthenic, milky-pale way — and he’s pensive but quick, with a gift for playing awkward situations that don’t leave the audience feeling awkward. The predicament in which Thomas finds himself is a kind of “Graduate Lite,” with Beckinsale’s Johanna as a less suburban, more girlishly inviting Mrs. Robinson who drags Thomas into the real world. But what he needs to discover isn’t really about sex. It’s about where he came from.
As a filmmaker, Marc Webb knows how to inflect well-crafted scenes with a personal touch — at least, when he isn’t getting swallowed up by franchise Hollywood. “The Only Living Boy in New York” isn’t, at this point, a great title for a movie, since the incandescent Simon & Garfunkel song it’s taken from was already used — defined — in the movies by the most memorable scene in Zach Braff’s “Garden State.” There’s all too likely a chance that a film like this one is going to be lost in the weekly deluge of indie releases. Yet if it’s less punchy and original than “(500) Days of Summer,” it’s still a wry tale that deserves to be seen. Gerald keeps telling Thomas that life should be a mess, but in “The Only Living Boy in New York” it’s a pleasingly witty and well-observed one.