D: Marc Webb / 89m
Cast: Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Bill Camp, Wallace Shawn, Tate Donovan, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger
Pity poor Thomas (Turner). He’s the quintessential college graduate who can’t work out what he wants to do with his life. His father, Ethan (Brosnan), is a brusque senior editor at a publishing firm, and his mother, Judith (Nixon) appears to be a nervous soul who surrounds herself with people from the arts in order to offset her nervous disposition. Thomas has been discouraged by his father from becoming an author, and he doesn’t seem to have a fall-back career to help him move forward. Instead he spends time with his best friend Mimi (Clemons). He’s in love with Mimi, but his love isn’t reciprocated. One day, Thomas meets W.F. (Bridges), who’s just moved into his building. They strike up a friendship, and soon Thomas is sharing his woes and actively seeking advice from his new-found friend. Soon after, while Thomas and Mimi are out together one evening, they see Ethan in the company of another woman. From this, Thomas decides to find out who the woman is, and to stop any affair she and her father may be having.
The woman is Johanna (Beckinsale), a freelance book editor who has been working on and off with Ethan over the past year. Thomas tells W.F. about his father’s affair, but instead of being equally outraged or supportive of Thomas’s efforts to sabotage the affair, W.F. questions his motives, asking him if he, Thomas, wants to sleep with Johanna instead, and making it plain that this is the reason why Thomas wants to put an end to the affair… Of course, this is all true, and in the way that only the movies can offer, Johanna proves receptive to Thomas’s advances and they begin their own relationship. It’s at this point in the movie when it’s likely that many viewers will throw their hands up in the air and cry, Wish Fulfilment! It’s also the moment when the movie, struggling already to make us care about Thomas or any of the other characters, throws in the towel and decides to play out its insubstantial narrative with all the emotional finesse of an after hours drinking contest.
It’s always hard to work out just who qualifies as the potential audience for a movie like The Only Living Boy in New York, with its self-torturing central characters, middle class aspirations, mock intellectualising (W.F. quotes Ezra Pound at one point), and lazy approach to character building. Oh, and let’s not forget the usual number of occasions where people talk in riddles and never… explain… themselves… fully. It’s hard to understand just why so many of these movies get made, especially when the aim is to try to make these tortured souls and their mock-important lives relevant to the average viewer. Even if this is exactly the social milieu that you inhabit, and even if many of the characters on display reminded you of people you actually know, would you still be interested in watching them whine about how hard done by they are, or how sad or lonely or misunderstood they are? (It’s probably very unlikely.) So if even the people this truly relates to aren’t likely to engage with this particular story, why should anyone else?
Granted, some viewers might be attracted to the movie by the talent involved. Actors of the stature of Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan will always garner interest in any movies they appear in, but on this occasion, they’re at the mercy of a script that challenges the audience to be emotionally involved at nearly every turn. No matter how good the performances – and Brosnan is very good (which is really nice to see after some of the movies he’s made in recent years) – if the script isn’t up to it, or isn’t as compelling as it should be, then no amount of acting experience can compensate for a story that carries little or no emotional weight. And Allan Loeb’s screenplay has exactly that problem: it’s dry and superficial, and any sympathies for Thomas et al. can only be arrived at by a huge amount of effort on the viewer’s part, and an effort that isn’t rewarded at any point during the movie. Even when the movie tries to be clever with the introduction of a back story that, once mentioned, gives away a large chunk of the plot, it stumbles on looking for a payoff that won’t feel forced or intrusive (hint: it doesn’t succeed).
Following on from the much more engaging experience that was Gifted (2017), director Marc Webb does his best to make the various plot developments more interesting than they are, but too often finds himself trying to coax some much needed animation into the material, and struggling to provide any sense that all this is happening in the real world and to “real” people. He’s not helped by Turner’s less than stellar performance, his interpretation of Thomas unnecessarily making viewers wonder just why Johanna would sleep with him, or why Mimi – in a plot “twist” that can be seen coming from space, let alone a mile away – eventually decides she really does love him. It’s a role that unfortunately exposes Turner’s limited range as an actor, and especially in his scenes with Bridges, and it sometimes he does more harm to the movie than even the script. Bridges is good value as always, Beckinsale is trapped by a character arc that is actually one long downward spiral, Nixon does anxious (and should be on medication) because that’s the only thing we know about Judith, and Clemons shows flashes of inspiration as she attempts to make Mimi more than just the best friend whose knowing comments get ignored by the main character.
In the end it all builds to a confrontation that lacks energy, emotion, and purpose (except to help wind things up quickly). An awkward, and unnecessary, coda undermines everything that’s gone before, and is so dramatically redundant that it’s like a slap in the face to the viewer. It reinforces the notion that whatever message the movie is trying to make, whether it be about relationships and how hard they can be, or finding one’s way in the world (by sleeping with your father’s mistress; always a good starting point), or even selecting a career based on what you know you can’t do, the movie itself hasn’t fully made up its mind what that message is, or even if it’s sure about it. In that way it’s a lot like Thomas himself: confused, hoping for inspiration to strike, and held back by so many missed opportunities to do the right thing.
Rating: 4/10 – a glossy snapshot of a semi-privileged lifestyle that proves as empty as the shallowness of the characters and their wretchedly expressed desires, The Only Living Boy in New York is pretentious on one side, and wilfully obtuse on the other; a tale that lacks passion despite its use of affairs and sexual exploitation, it’s another exercise in trying to make middle class angst interesting when we’ve seen it waaaaay too many times before.