In “Igby Goes Down,” Igby (Kieran Culkin, “Nowhere to Run”) has a “Home Alone 2” moment. While checking into the O’Hare Holiday Inn with his mom’s Visa, young Igby arouses suspicion from a clerk wanting to know where his mother his, and why he doesn’t have a reservation. Why he forgot to bring his Deluxe Talkboy, we’ll never know.
Written and directed by Burt Steers, “Igby Goes Down” is a fun and often tragic satire about a young boy’s attempts to keep his head above water. With a schizophrenic father (Bill Pullman, “Spaceballs”), a speed-addicted mother (Susan Sarandon), and a chillingly slimy older brother (Ryan Phillipe), Igby has to work pretty hard to avoid going down. “Igby” opens just after the title character has been kicked out of his sixth East coast boarding school, leaving his mother Mimi no other choice but to happily send him away to military school. Unfortunately, Igby’s pot habit does not go over well with the Sergeants and Commanders, and his bloodshot eyes soon get him beat up in a scene so sad that we can’t help but be on his side for the rest of the film.
As a child, Igby (played briefly by Rory Culkin, “Signs”) witnesses his father having a nervous breakdown; this incident, which plants seeds of fear in the little boy, is offered as the catalyst for Igby’s live-in-the-moment philosophy. Terrified that he’ll one day go nuts just like his old man, Igby makes sure to be wholly himself at all times, saying and doing exactly as he pleases. This bravery makes for excellent, snappy dialogue, full of the kinds of comebacks you usually only think of three days after an argument.
Igby’s escape from military school lands him in the Manhattan loft of his godfather’s slutty mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet “The Whole Nine Yards”), who he befriended while working construction on her apartment over the summer. A romance with “nymphomanical JAP” Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), who shares his love of dime bags and water balloons, soon follows. As Igby traipses through Manhattan, wading through the messes made by this curious cast of prodigies and eccentrics, he manages to earn both our sympathy and our respect.
As Igby, Kieran Culkin captures what we love best about Holden Caulfield, adding bite and wisdom of his own. The result, though it echoes Salinger’s innocent character with an intolerance for phonies, is an entirely new kind of aberrant teenager. In a wonderful scene with a psychiatrist, Culkin’s performance is so natural it doesn’t even seem like acting. He makes Igby into a cool Holden Caulfield.
The rest of cast is excellent as well, and it’s exciting to see them all together in one film. Claire Danes, who hasn’t been in anything for a long time, unfolds her character slowly, and as her relationship with Igby intensifies we can see clearly how she begins as a snappy, sex-obsessed vegetarian, only to reveal a torn, emotionally sporadic young woman behind that facade. Ryan Phillipe pulls a “Cruel Intentions” with his portrayal of stiff, loveless Oliver, and Susan Sarandon is regally neurotic as Igby’s neglectful, abusive mother.
Even though it is darkly comic and a bit sad at times, “Igby Goes Down” is a truly intellectual and fun movie, combining excellent writing with colorful acting to create a modern “Catcher In the Rye”-style classic.