The Only Living Boy in New York is a slight coming-of-ager too often hijacked by a grandstanding, pretentious screenwriter on a diversionary nostalgia trip.
Early in The Only Living Boy in New York there’s a lengthy voice-over lament that New York has lost its soul. In hip writerly prose that smacks of a grandstanding screenwriter self-consciously showcasing his literary flair, the voice, steeped in decades of smoke and booze, contrasts “Lou Reed’s New York” with the supposedly pale facsimile it has become today. You imagine a dissolute bohemian Boomer writer, glass of whiskey in hand, impressing himself channelling (make that aping) Burroughs as he recites his latest literary effort aloud over a typewriter in a Lower East Side garret. It all sounds so second-hand, second-rate, pretentious – and ultimately, trite and fake. Unfortunately, the same damning assessment applies to The Only Living Boy in New York as a whole.
The big problem is the writing. Screenwriter Allan Loeb can’t let go of his NY nostalgia, or his need to impress. There’s one scene completely irrelevant to the narrative in which he uses an MC at a wedding as a vehicle for sermonising on…and on…and on about the soulless NY of today. It’s excruciatingly grandiose writing. Pity he didn’t receive a caning from the director and editor and a stern directive to focus his energies on the characters and narrative.
The intro voice-over is the work of Jeff Bridges, who subsequently surfaces in person as W.F., a shabby, hard-drinkin’, cigar-puffin’ author working on a novel in between giving sage advice and psychological counsel to 20-something lead character Thomas (Callum Turner). I love Bridges generally, but he’s a bit mannered here. He could play parts like this in his sleep, and there’s a sense that he’s painting by numbers.
It doesn’t help that Loeb seems blindly fond of W.F. (his alter ego, perhaps). There’s a dark flipside to the character that isn’t explored – a dramatic opportunity missed. On one hand he’s the wise literary elder, a mentor for young Thomas (Christ knows, he needs one), but on the other, as we learn late in the film, he is also a self-serving manipulator, a puppet master playing with people’s lives. If this aspect of the W.F. character had been pursued The Only Living Boy in New York might have been a far more interesting film.
Instead, the primary focus is on Thomas, who’s basically a privileged little shit. The son of a wealthy publisher (Pierce Brosnan), he’s in rebellious phase, but is not about to kick in a portrait of his grandmother as he storms out of his parents’ lives a la James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. No, his dispiritingly petty war of independence is contained to leasing an apartment in a downmarket area, probably financed by Daddy. His apartment is in the same block in which W.F. resides, which is how they come to meet (there’s more to this than coincidence, as it happens).
Like W.F., Thomas is given to whining about New York’s soullessness (based on what, you wonder – he’s not old enough to be making nostalgic comparisons with the glorious 70s). Indeed, he has quite a capacity for whining, and as a new graduate without a job, plenty of time in which to indulge it. His angst doesn’t add up to much. There’s his indeterminate relationship with the sweet Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), who’s wisely uncommitted to him and is planning a career move to Europe. Then there’s his depressive mother (Cynthia Nixon) to worry about. And his father to resent, whom he blames for his mother’s fragile state, and for labelling one of his early creative writing efforts “serviceable.”
When he discovers that his father has a mistress – gorgeous 40-something Johanna (Kate Beckinsale, who has nothing much to do but look purty and bat her eyelids) – he makes her acquaintance and guess what happens next? Yep. Really. You almost expect to hear Simon and Garf come in with “koo koo ca choo Mrs Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you could know…” (Indeed, the musical choices in the film are almost this ham-fisted, with Dylan’s Visions of Johanna the hammiest).
Which brings me to another gripe: what’s with the title of the film? The only discernible connection with the Simon and Garfunkle song from which it derives is the character name Tom. If the Thomas of the film is supposed to be the only living boy in New York, then the Big Apple really has withered on the branch.
There’s a twist in this silly tale towards the end, but it feels tacked on, and like much else in the film, doesn’t ring true.
Avoid, I say, but I should point out that some punters at the screening I attended clapped at the end. Bewilderingly, I don’t think their applause was ironic.
Australian release date: The Only Living Boy in New York screening at Luna Leederville & Luna-on-SX in Perth & Freo respectively from 12 Oct 2017
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