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A post-screwball comedy: Igby Goes Down tries to wed the "zany rich" romps of the '30s to a jaundiced view of today. (Film).

Igby Goes Down * Written and directed by Burr Steers * Starring Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Susan Sarandon, Amanda Peet, Jared Harris, Bill Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum * UA/Atlantic Streamline

It would be interesting to ask bona fide blue-bloods what they think of screwball comedies, those movies from the '30s in which rich people tear each other's hearts out but are too crackers to notice. The awful truth may lie not so far from the familiar images: Some of the rich probably are a bit dotty, but the fun doesn't assuage the damage that's done when expensive toys become a substitute for love and attention. (I can hear a rumble of readers saying, "Yeah, whatever, hold the love and pass the Ferrari.")

In Burr Steers's acridly autobiographical Igby Goes Down, a well-to-do chap played by Bill Pullman takes his two young boys to see the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, but no one has much to say about it. Maybe it hits too close to home. The matriarch of the family (Susan Sarandon, in full tigress mode) is easily as destructive as Katharine Hepburn's daffy heiress, but instead of toppling dinosaur skeletons, she tends to level the fragile self-esteem of her husband and younger son. And one could say that daddy Pullman is as out of it as Cary Grant's zoologist, but it's the kind of distractedness that leads to mental institutions.

As for the boys, they grow up to be Igby (Kieran Culkin), a cheeky 17-year-old with a chip on his shoulder that only money can buy, and Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), a lockjawed Republican "majoring in neofascism at Columbia." The brothers are bonded by a mutual disdain and a dim regard for their fire-breathing mother, although only Igby inspires the full force of her contempt.

Igby's rebelliousness sends him in quick succession to a priest at his prep school (to whom he blasphemes Jesus), to a therapist (who hits him), to military school (which he flees), and to New York City, where he gets caught up in the bohemian periphery of his wealthy godfather's (Jeff Goldblum) downtown world. Along the way he winds up falling into bed with a simpatico college girl named Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes) as well as his godfather's coked-up lover, Rachel (Amanda Peet). When the going gets tough, he runs drugs for Rachel's friend Russell (Jared Harris), a gay performance artist.

This is the edgy face of the new screwball comedy, which harkens back to the '30s films in its reverence for literacy but pitches its wit under a dark cloud. Everyone spits tangy rejoinders like Preston Sturges characters, but the air of harmless eccentricity has been replaced by a haze of mental breakdown, mercy killing, discreet drug abuse, discreet anti-Semitism, and not-so-discreet homophobia.

As in that other recent example of the genre, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, the younger generation is cursed by the older: Oliver inherits his mother's suffocating sense of entitlement and Igby his father's alienation. Steers shares Anderson's verbal dexterity but lacks his visual flair: The dialogue is acute and funny, but there is no real conversation between the characters and their environment.

It makes for a detached amusement that provokes muted laughter. The film's attempts at being gritty and real (Harris's melancholy queen, Peet's strung-out druggie) are less convincing than the tart talk, which is unfortunate, as Steers is said to have based Harris's character on a brother who died of AIDS complications. This movie doesn't go there. As it is, Igby Goes Down exudes more pain than any screwball comedy should be asked to.

Stuart is film critic and senior film writer at Newsday.
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Author:Stuart, Jan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 17, 2002
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