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Painful in Youth, Delicious in Maturity

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | April 23, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | April 23, 2009 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Thanks to Prisco for today’s column idea, focusing on a small film that holds a special place in my boozy heart. 2002’s Igby Goes Down stars Kieran Culkin as the disconnected second son of a wealthy Manhattan family. Despite the potentially unsympathetic nature of an emo drama about rich New Yorkers, Igby paints such a bleakly entertaining picture of the fucked-up nature of these kids’ upbringing that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy as Igby (Culkin) struggles to get some distance. Good writing needs no social context, and shitty parenting knows no social stratum.

Beverage Consumed: The whiskey sour, another member of the Cocktail Pantheon — four or fewer ingredients, exclusive of water and ice — and an excellent summer refresher with a powerful kick. Easy to make in small or large batches, the whiskey sour can be adjusted to anyone’s taste for sweet or sour drinks; if you like lemonade, this drink is for you, even if you’re not partial to whiskey.

To prepare a whiskey sour, you’ll need good bourbon, fresh lemon juice, and bar syrup. That’s it. In a cocktail shaker or vessel suitable for vigorous stirring, combine two parts bourbon to one part lemon juice to a touch less than one part bar syrup. Mix well by shaking or stirring, then pour into a tumbler or Collins glass over plenty of ice; the ice should fill the glass to the rim, creating a nice whiskey lemonade mixture as the ice melts in the high proof alcohol. Garnish, or not, with an orange slice or a maraschino cherry. The lemon juice isn’t subtle, of course, so don’t go wasting your Knob Creek on a whiskey sour; Wild Turkey is perfect for this, and Jack Daniels works reasonably well, though it’s not truly bourbon. I haven’t had good luck with Jim Beam, as it’s a bit flinty for this mix. In lieu of bar syrup, granular sugar will work in a pinch, as long as you stir it briskly in the warm bourbon and lemon juice mix. Sugar does not dissolve well in cold liquid, so mix it in thoroughly before adding any ice.

(By the by, I’ve been assuming all this time that everyone knows what “two parts X to one part Y” means; I’m referring to the mix ratio, not a unit of measure. It can be two shots to one shot or two gallons to one gallon, depending on how much hooch you want.)

What elevates the whiskey sour beyond many other citrus drinks is its flexibility. The mixture of lemon juice, bar syrup, and ice water is essentially lemonade, and the whiskey sour is readily adjustable to make it sweeter, more lemony, or lighter or stronger on the whiskey. A heavier lemon/syrup mix with just a healthy splash of whiskey is perfect for whiling away a long afternoon when you still need to be (relatively) sober later. The measures listed above are simply the Official Boozehound Recipe based on personal preference.

Summary of Action: A clichéd movie term I’ve come to loathe is the phrase “coming-of-age.” Just about any film where a protagonist under the age of thirty does some maturing can be lumped into this genre, and the term has devolved into lazy critical shorthand at once trite and reductive. In nearly any competent film employing this structure, the coming-of-age part is merely a means to an end; the meat in the nut is the filmmaker’s conception of what lies on the other side of growing up and why that “what” is important. Kicking and Screaming, Brick, and Bottle Rocket all could fall into the coming-of-age genre, but none of them is similar to the others. Even The 40-Year-Old Virgin and High Fidelity, considering the growing up involved in each of them, could be considered coming-of-age films, and they’re pretty far apart thematically.

Igby Goes Down falls firmly in the middle of this ersatz genre with its offering of 17-year-old Igby (Culkin), the black sheep of his blueblood Manhattan family: cold, bitchy mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon); conniving, snobby brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe); and wealthy, dessicated godfather, D.H. (Jeff Goldblum). As the story begins, Igby, having been kicked out of just about every prep school on the East Coast, goes home to face the music: involuntary commitment to a military academy to finish high school. Turns out Igby is a bit of a March hare, with a rebellious anti-authoritarian streak borne partially of his mother’s overbearingly dictatorial nature and partially out of seeing his father devolve into crippling mental illness.

Staring down the unbearable, Igby takes matters into his own hands, running away into the wilds of New York City, intending only to hide out and bide his time until his 18th birthday. He finds shelter in the studio loft of D.H.’s kept mistress, Rachel (Amanda Peet), an unstable, drug-addled ballet dancer whom Igby knows from his family’s society events. Igby also meets a city girl, Sookie (Claire Danes), who helps him pass the time talking, fucking, and smoking weed. Igby’s situation becomes precarious, however, as Rachel and her relationship with D.H. begin to unravel, leading Igby’s family to him and forcing him to clarify and distill his defiance into something more meaningful than adolescent pique.

At times Igby flirts with the “sad rich white folks and all their worries” trope; Igby has all the advantages imaginable for a 17-year-old, and it’s never exactly clear why his wealthy father couldn’t handle the strain of all that money and privilege. Director and writer Burt Steers successfully dances along the edge of this pit by creating a credible, demonically dysfunctional family from which any sensitive, self-reliant kid would want a great deal of distance. Steers also uses the family’s wealth primarily as a vehicle to set up locations for the characters’ interactions. While their class status figures prominently in Igby’s disaffection and emotional distance, Igby’s desire to escape that life drives the narrative,a desire that is entirely believable.

Sarandon, Phillippe and Goldblum are uniformly excellent in weaving together the oppressive net comprised of the threads of Steers’ smart dialogue. Sarandon and Goldblum have played similar roles often enough that their skill is no surprise, but Phillippe continues to puzzle, shining in films like this one and Breach, coming across as a poor man’s Jude Law in trash like Antitrust. Oliver is a nasty, highbrow bully, and it’s a wonder Igby didn’t kill him in his sleep as a younger boy, yet Phillippe skillfully plays Oliver with enough humor and humanity that the role doesn’t fall into caricature. Amanda Peet doesn’t get much screen time but makes the most of her role as a tragic, doomed party girl, hopelessly reliant on a rich, married user who has no intention of a permanent relationship. I generally don’t feel strongly either way about Claire Danes, but she’s the weak link here as the ostensibly free-spirited daughter of intellectual New Yorkers. Overall, however, the casting is almost perfect, a roster of veterans who know exactly how to hit their marks and inject verve, humor, and pathos into their lines.

Literally and figuratively, however, Igby Goes Down begins and ends with Kieran Culkin’s wonderful portrayal of Igby, an emotionally drifting teenager clever and insightful beyond his years but mystified by the gap between his 17-year-old self and the 18-year-old self he envisions. Igby really just wants to be away, anywhere but here as the saying goes, and Culkin completely captures a boy without the slightest idea of how to get to that anywhere, beyond a vague notion about going to California. Culkin appears in nearly every scene and adeptly handles the constellation of more experienced actors around him. I have to believe it’s hard not to get blown off the screen by Jeff Goldblum and Susan Sarandon at their larger-than-life best, but Culkin not only holds his own, he puts an unforgettably wiseass stamp on the iconic Holden Caulfield role. Igby the character could get really annoying really quickly in the wrong hands, but Culkin affords only enough whining immaturity to give a credible feel to the character. (Rory Culkin appears briefly in a flashback as 10-year-old Igby; the resemblance is eery.)

Igby Goes Down has no overarching grandeur, no would-be profound worldview — it’s just an expertly made film that succeeds on all levels, from its dead-on take on the way family members twist the knife right down to the pitch-perfect soundtrack (especially Travis’s version of “The Weight” over the end credits). Throughout the film, Steers captures the loneliness that accompanies waking up from the restless sleep of adolescence to discover that, while you have nothing in common with the people and places you came from, you also have no idea where the right people and places are. Yet there’s something comforting about the measures taken and concessions made by Igby to begin puzzling that out. Igby Goes Down provides the rare exception proving the rule, where the coming-of-age part is both the end and the means, an important event even when one hasn’t figured out the “what” on the other side.

Tastes Like: Three parts 80-proof, kick-in-the-crotch maturity, two parts bitter ennui, one part sweet reassurance.

Overall Rating: Two out of three Culkins.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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