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Slocumb v. Caulfield

"Igby Goes Down" plumbs the depths of prep-school malaise, but not as well as its precursors.

12:00 AM, Oct 11, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
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IN THE OPENING SCENES of "Igby Goes Down," the title character (Kieran Culkin) gets the boot from the first of a series of East Coast religious prep schools. He has passed only one course, and that just barely, but Igby, despite his failings, has an inquiring mind.

"If heaven is such a wonderful place, then why is getting crucified such a big f--ing sacrifice?" he asks an administrator.

In "Igby," the writing and directing debut of actor Burr Steers ("Pulp Fiction," "The Last Days of Disco"), we are served up a portrait of the adolescent as a cruel, disaffected, and intelligent cynic. With Igby Slocumb, Steers takes on a character that's nearly its own genre: the prep school boy.

In the gamut of prep school tales that runs from the film "Dead Poets Society" back to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "This Side of Paradise" and John Knowles's "A Separate Peace," Igby most closely resembles Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951). Both Caulfield and Igby are prep school bedouins. Both hold unorthodox views of their surroundings. Each is hiding from his parents to avoid confrontations about school. And while neither knows what goals to set for himself, both know they want to "go west." Steers in fact began "Igby Goes Down" as a novel but decided midway to make it a script instead. It would still be worth fleshing out as a book, however, for throughout the movie we catch hints of the young man's capacity for feeling (a sweetly sleeping Igby holds the hand of his deceased mother after he has literally pounded on her corpse). Most of the evidence on-screen, though, makes us think he's nothing but a jerk. Igby's insecure, but not enough, and his prejudices and hatreds are too deeply entrenched.

Pressured to achieve academically by his success-crazed, pill-popping mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon), the seventeen-year-old Igby (Kieran Culkin) escapes from his new military school and refuses to commence a fresh academic year, hiding from his D.C.-based mother in New York City, and earning his GED on the side. In New York, he makes camp with his godfather's mistress Rachel in what she calls her "studio," though we soon discover that Rachel and her friends' definition of art is very abstract. Put off as he is by Mimi and his patronizing Republican older brother Ollie (Ryan Phillippe), an economics student--Igby says he's studying "neofascism"--at nearby Columbia, he is equally repelled by the New York circle into which he falls. Of drug-addled Rachel, Igby despairs, "She's a dancer who doesn't dance and her best friend is a painter who doesn't paint. It's kind of like a boho version of Island of Lost Toys." In the end Igby sets his sights on California, a land untainted by his life so far.

We can guess that Igby's angst derives from family relations worse than the Royal Tenenbaums', though the film never tells us for sure. He is often the butt of cheap family fun: "Mom must have some compromising photo of the priest with an altar boy for [a certain school] to even consider him," brother Ollie tells new acquaintances at a party. Ollie even seduces the saucy Sookie (Claire Danes), a Bennington girl Igby has befriended. Contemplating Igby, Mimi wonders, "His creation was an act of animosity. Why shouldn't his life be one?" Notably absent is Igby's father, Mr. Slocomb. He was institutionalized when Igby was younger to "recover from life" after a schizophrenic meltdown. Yet even though he's off-camera, Igby identifies with him best.

Igby fights his family's thoughtlessness with heightened hostility. Relentlessly uncivil, he cannot sympathize with his mother when she's diagnosed with cancer. "They found another lump," Ollie tells Igby. "Good," he responds. He does travel to D.C. to be with Mimi while Ollie, at her request, poisons her out of her cancer-ridden misery. He is present, he assures her, only so as not to jeopardize his inheritance. In her passing Igby forgets himself not for a moment, and Mimi writes him a check from her deathbed. His decision to run away from it all after her death, though a cliché, shows his intense alienation, while sadly perhaps signaling for him a new era of peace.

In "The Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield amuses one school-aged generation after another with his absurd commentary about three days spent wandering in New York City. Compared with Igby's, Holden's concerns are mannerly. "I had to pack these brand-new ice skates my mother had practically just sent me a couple of days before. That depressed me. I could see my mother going in Spaulding's and asking the salesman a million dopy questions--and here I was getting the ax again," he thinks. Significant too: While Igby wants to head out west, Holden stays at the pleading of his little sister.