Kieran Culkin, Ryan Phillippe, ...

Two brothers watch their mother snuffle and gasp her last breaths in the opening moments of Igby Goes Down. The young men are dressed in the signifying blazers and WASPy regalia of the prep-school educated; the mother, in luxurious nightie and full makeup, is nestled in the signifying, too-many-pillows decor of the Washington, D.C.-society bred. She snores; they wish her dead. How Igby Slocumb, his older brother, Oliver, and their mother, Mimi, have come to such a hellish family moment is the flashback narrative of this poisonously funny and unstintingly furious gem, a little indie-style production that succeeds not because it breaks new ground but because it displays such nimble footing around a familiarly rocky coming-of-age landscape.

The misadventure of a rich and disaffected young man on the loose in Manhattan isn’t exactly virgin territory. And the writer-director, Burr Steers, is more or less unknown, an actor and director raised in the very wealth and D.C. society he writes about, creatively indebted to Holden Caulfield and the pent-up young movie characters who came before ”Igby.” Steers’ film, though, is pretty damn terrific — the ”Catcher in the Rye” experience revitalized just when I thought it had been recently Tadpoled out of viability. The filmmaker may or may not have a future of very different stories to tell after having offered up the one he knows so well; only time will tell whether the kind of zany, deadpan compositional choices that enliven ”Igby” are fully in the director’s control. But at least in this heartfelt, scathing first feature, he has married script (full of bon mot dialogue that shouldn’t work as extemporaneous talk but does), style, cast (of notably groovy actors operating with rare and refreshingly little regard for their own grooviness), and design in exquisite, curdled harmony. And he has given Kieran Culkin the role of a young lifetime as Igby, unleashing a naked performance of such natural precision and authority that one wonders if all the ash of backstage Culkin family dramas we’ve read about over the years had to be compacted to produce such a diamond-sharp achievement. Culkin’s soft, vaguely unfocused features sometimes suggest a less run-down Robert Downey Jr., or perhaps a dozen other young actors, from Tobey Maguire to Jake Gyllenhaal, who can play floppy-haired and self-destructive, but the mixture of resignation, fury, and determination Cul-kin gives Igby is a formula all his own.

Igby, see, is in grave danger of going down?as in down the rabbit hole, down the path to self-destruction?because he has watched his father (Bill Pullman) unravel from mental illness and because his mother (Susan Sarandon) is selfish and cold. (Younger brother Rory Culkin, a ringer for senior sibling Macaulay in his ”Home Alone” era, plays the 10-year-old Igby in scenes of bathos-free horror as Dad goes mad in front of the boy.) Igby is expelled from every school he’s dumped into because he refuses to emulate his brother (Ryan Phillippe), a materialistic junior plutocrat. Igby escapes his academic incarceration, makes his way to New York City, and crashes at the downtown loft his wealthy fixer of a godfather (Jeff Goldblum) keeps to stash away his artsy mistress, Rachel (Amanda Peet). Igby makes friends with a similarly oversophisticated, lost, pseudo-bohemian girl named Sookie (Claire Danes). Igby hurts, Sookie hurts, Rachel hurts, every benighted and vulnerable and culpable character in Steers’ script hurts — but couldn’t care less about drumming up pity or approval through charm.

Which may be just what liberates the assembled all-star cast to do such vivid work. After a run of playing maternal, Sarandon clears her sinuses, and ours, with her casually monstrous Mimi; after a run in souped-up shebangs like ”Jurassic Park” and ”Independence Day,” Goldblum reestablishes his long, tall skill at playing suave, game-playing men. Peet, of such abundant talent and often unfortunate script choices, does fearless work as a girlfriend gone to rot from heroin. Danes turns what could have been a collection of overexotic character details into an identifiable young woman. And even the smallest roles are fleshed out by big talents: Eric Bogosian and Cynthia Nixon play Manhattanites on Igby’s route as a drug courier; Bill Irwin barks as the commander of a military school; comedian Jim Gaffigan passes by as a hotel clerk.

”I think if Gandhi had had to hang out with you for any prolonged period of time he’d have ended up kicking the s— out of you,” Oliver tells his brother, in a toast of brotherly loathe. ”Igby Goes Down” only gets weirder and meaner and darker and sadder as it progresses, which is amazing since it simultaneously remains funny and horrifying right up to the end. In the big picture, this good little film about a rich kid’s badly screwed-up life is a passionate argument for going up.

Igby Goes Down
  • Movie
  • 97 minutes