[Screen It]

(2002) (Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes) (R)

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Drama: A young man tries to come to grips with himself and his dysfunctional family that turned him into the person he is.
Igby Slocumb (KIERAN CULKIN) is a disillusioned 17-year-old who has a knack for getting kicked out of every school his self-absorbed, pill-popping mother, Mimi (SUSAN SARANDON), manages to get him enrolled in. There's little doubt about why Igby is the way he is. Beyond his mother - who also has terminal breast cancer - his father Jason (BILL PULLMAN) is schizophrenic and his older brother Oliver (RYAN PHILLIPPE) is a cold, calculating and opportunistic college freshman.

Thus, when Igby's godfather, D.H. Banes (JEFF GOLDBLUM), offers him the chance to come and work with him in New York over the summer, Igby agrees. There he meets Rachel (AMANDA PEET), D.H.'s alluring mistress; her friend Russell (JARED HARRIS), a flamboyant performance artist; and Sookie Sapperstein (CLAIRE DANES), a fellow disillusioned sort who's taking a year off from college to find herself.

As Igby interacts with them and his various family members, he repeatedly tries to break free from his upper crust trappings as well as the madness and dysfunction that have torn his family and himself apart.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
People have long argued whether kids and the way they are and behave is a product of nature - namely the genes they inherit - or nurture in the form of who they interact with and how they're treated over the years. Most will probably agree that it's actually a mixture of both, although certain kids are obviously influenced by one more than the other.

When it comes to Igby Slocumb, it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause, but there's no denying that he's royally screwed up. With a self-absorbed, addicted and terminally ill mother, a schizophrenic and emotionally absent father and a ruthless older brother, it's no surprise that Igby's ended up as a confused, lackadaisical and troubled teenager.

What's surprising is that such strife and familial dysfunction can be funny and entertaining, but that's certainly the case with "Igby Goes Down." Reminiscent of "The Royal Tenenbaums" but not as pretentious or self-absorbed, the film will obviously be a hit with the art house crowd, but the jury's still out about how it will fare with mainstream viewers.

Like "Tenenbaums," this one lacks any sort of normal or well-adjusted characters and that's what makes it engaging, intriguing and often rather funny. Granted, the latter category definitely falls into the black comedy genre, as evidenced by the opening scene.

As accompanied by a comically quirky score, the two brothers - played by Kieran Culkin and Ryan Phillippe - stand over their snoring mother -- Susan Sarandon in a flamboyantly mean role - contemplating their apparently failed effort to kill her.

A quick plastic bag over the head seems to do the trick, and the film then rewinds to show us what led up to this point. While that obviously won't be funny or even amusing to some viewers - a point that all black comedy must face - the way in which actor turned writer/director Burr Steers (making his debut behind the camera) has staged the scene - along with most of the overall movie - shows that it's not meant to be taken at face value.

After all, the seemingly murderous act - like the family itself - has veiled motives and meanings that are revealed as the story follows the title character and his various interesting interactions with a number of intriguing characters.

Coming of age stories about troubled and confused teens are nothing new and this one will remind viewers - at least in theme - of previous efforts such as "The Catcher in the Rye," "Rebel Without a Cause" and the more recent "Ghost World." Steers does a decent job of infusing this work with his own unique voice, however, and writes some terrific dialogue for his characters to speak.

Some may complain that it's not right for films featuring dysfunctional people to get all of the good material and writing as compared with those featuring "normal" individuals. While that might be true, there's no denying that the former are far more interesting to watch than the latter.

Although the story is an original, its portrayal on the screen does come off like a cinematic adaptation of a pre-existing novel. That's mainly due to the film's episodic and disjointed nature as well as the overriding feeling that there's more to the story and characters than we're seeing. Thankfully, neither of those problems is horribly debilitating or distracting, but the film probably would have benefited from some tighter storytelling.

Beyond the terrific dialogue and overall quirky aura, the film benefits the most from a strong cast and good performances stemming from some interesting characters. Now starting to match brother Macaulay's film output, Kieran Culkin ("The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," "The Cider House Rules") delivers a standout performance in a role of the type that's normally quite hard to pull off. Although his behavior and mindset make him a character you might not want to meet in person, it's fun to watch him on the screen.

Susan Sarandon ("The Banger Sisters," "Anywhere But Here") is a hoot as the screwed up matriarch, Jeff Goldblum ("Cats & Dogs," the "Jurassic Park" films) is interesting as the adulterous godfather and Claire Danes ("Brokedown Palace," "The Mod Squad") is quite good as yet another disillusioned and disaffected spirit who affects and is affected by the protagonist.

Ryan Phillippe ("Gosford Park," "Antitrust"), Amanda Peet ("Changing Lanes," "Saving Silverman"), Jared Harris ("Mr. Deeds," "Lost in Space") and Bill Pullman ("Lucky Numbers," "Lake Placid") are also good in their respective roles and, like the rest of the cast, mostly manage to turn mean, disturbed and/or unlikable characters into ones that are captivating to watch.

Of course, all of that might stem from our inherent car crash fascination mentality. Whatever the case, the film is one of the more entertaining and intriguing looks at dysfunctional people to come down the pike in quite a while. "Igby Goes Down" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 16, 2002 / Posted September 20, 2002

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