"Igby Goes Down" is one of the most intelligent and inventive films in recent years and certainly a surprising accomplishment for the typically formulaic American movie industry. As a dark comedy and a social commentary, the genius behind this film ranks it with other notables such as "Magnolia", "Rushmore", "American Beauty", and "Y Tu Mama Tambien". While Igby features an all-star cast including Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Ryan Phillipe, Bill Pullman, and Susan Sarandon, their celebrity personae are thankfully overshadowed by the quality of the story and its characters. In subsequent interviews that are available on the DVD, many of the actors stated that they were so impressed with the screenplay (written by director Burr Steers) that they were willing to work in a low budget film for a fraction of their normally astronomical wages. As a result, the viewer is rewarded with a kind of performance integrity that is hard to find in normal Hollywood films. The actors really want to act, not simply to be their public selves on screen.
The story begins with two brothers, Oliver (Phillippe), and Igby (Culkin) Slocum suffocating their mother, Mimi (Sarandon) to death. It then backtracks to show us the tortured world of the Slocum family and the strange but radically different paths with which the brothers respond to it. Mimi Slocum is a despotic and dysfunctional mother who is prone to violent fits while her husband Jason (Pullman) is a schizophrenic. From an early age, Oliver internalizes whatever pain and anger he feels toward his family situation and becomes a highly accomplished student, dutiful family member, and a faithful employee. In fact, Oliver evolves into such an intense conformist that the only thing that makes him likable is the sense that on some level his life is a sick parody of itself even if he doesn't fully realize it.
Not so for Igby who contrasts Oliver's stellar behavior by becoming the family's problem child. Kicked out of one private school after another and finally "on the lam" as he puts it, Igby plunges into a series of increasingly outrageous situations and delivers some of the wittiest lines of the film. Brilliant, vulnerable, chaotic, and self-destructive, Igby is hardly self-deluded and is certainly no weakling. The fact that Igby is fully aware of who and what he is prevents even the most tragic and difficult parts of this film from being manipulative. Igby never allows himself to hide behind pity, sentimentality or false bravado, and as a result, he prevents the audience from doing this as well. We're stuck with Igby on his crazy ride and we're forced to view the world with his wit and honesty.
Much of the communication in this film is handled with a subtlety that is almost fragile. While Mimi remains a poisonous matriarch from start to finish, she displays incredible moments of humanity with little more than a slight change of expression. Where one might think that with all of his condescension and indifference, Oliver must really hate Igby, this is hardly the case. There is tenderness there, but Oliver has managed to bury it beneath his well-crafted layers of conformity, that he's not about to dismantle as part of some idiotic emotional denouement. And even Igby's suave and sometimes brutal god father D.H. is not as simple as he seems.
For a film of ideas, sarcasm, and gut-wrenching emotion, "Igby Goes Down" is an amazingly smooth experience that can be enjoyed on several levels. I loved this film for its intelligence, its uniqueness, its thought provoking concepts and the wonderful quality of acting.