The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)
Sharing its name with a wistfully melancholic 1970 folk-rock song, written and performed by American pop duo Simon & Garfunkel, The Only Living Boy in New York is a coming-of-age drama that centers on a proud and confused college graduate trying to find himself in a post-Millennium New York City, the film also an ode to The City So Nice, They Named It Twice.
The movie opens with some insightful yet mildly cynical ramblings by star Jeff Bridges, which play over a quaint line-drawing animation, this preface informing viewers that New York City just ain’t what it used to be, particularly back in late ’70s/ early ’80s, this a time when art, music and literature defined the bustling Big Apple, which itself was a culturally rich melting pot. If anything, this highly romanticized intro instantly sets the tone, filmmakers painting an idealized portrait of the City That Never Sleeps — think Woody Allen’s starry-eyed New York, the prolific writer-director having a career-long fascination with the raw urban landscapes and jazzy lifestyle associated with the big smoke.
Enter Manhattanite Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), son of a wealthy and successful publisher, who’d recently moved out of his parents’ Upper West Side unit to live on his own terms, Thomas relocating to the Lower East Side of town, our protagonist having little resolve in life; the only thing Thomas seems to be settled on is his quasi girlfriend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), who’s, well, in an on-and-off relationship with a bad-boy muso, the artsy beauty Croatia-bound to follow her own dreams and aspirations — the way Mimi sees it, Thomas isn’t really part of her immediate future. When the two get embroiled in an uneasy argument, Mimi brushing their ‘magical’ one night stand off as a drug-induced fling (August 8th, as Thomas neurotically reminds her), the crushed twenty-something returns home to find a disheveled old dude perched on his apartment steps. Introducing himself as a neighbor, the reclusive-looking man, named W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), invites Thomas up to his crib to unload, this igniting an unlikely friendship between the pair.
Frequenting W.F.’s near-empty abode, Thomas begins to dispense all of his troubles onto his worldly new pal, the duo philosophizing while bonding over many glasses of booze, Gerald proving to be a bit of an alcoholic. It’s here were we learn about Thomas’ worries, most of his insecurities stemming from his well-to-do alpha-male father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), and his depressed pill-popping mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), who’s devastated that her only son had moved out of the family household. You see, with Ethan being a literary magnate and Judith an ex-painter, Thomas’ parents are part of the city’s financially and socially elite, the couple spending their evenings mingling with former entrepreneurs who waste hours reminiscing over the golden days of NYC — Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn and Debi Mazar appearing as the snooty guests. Thomas, however, has little interest in this upper-crust conduct, nor is he looking for handouts, the young’un wanting to plot his own course in life.
Curiosity, though, soon sees the disenchanted Thomas discover a shocking secret, our front-man learning that his affluent dad had been fooling around with a younger woman, a stunning freelance English editor named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale) — cue Bob Dylan’s 1966 hit, ‘Visions of Johanna.’ Confiding in W.F. Gerald every step of the way, Thomas begins to tail his father’s sultry new mistress in an attempt to destroy the relationship, this intrigue eventually steering our hero down a murky and dangerous path, a road that could shatter his entire family, and forever alter his life.
Competently helmed by Marc Webb — who, earlier this year, brought us the charming, sweet-natured drama Gifted — The Only Living Boy in New York is a cut above ‘serviceable,’ the picture highlighting the strengths of filmmaker Webb, who’s really gone back to his indie roots, the 43-year-old director clearly more interested in telling intimate human stories rather than superhero extravaganzas, films awash with CGI — see Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man series (2012-14).
Working from a script by Allan Loeb — who wrote the critically mauled Collateral Beauty (2016) — Webb brings charm and humanity to the narrative, the guy’s knack for storytelling, and his ability to capture ravishing visuals, overcoming the obvious scripting flaws. Written some ten years ago, Loeb’s screenplay, while fairly conventional, meanders along at a steady pace, the movie exploring the messiness of life, along with themes of love and family, The Only Living Boy in New York perhaps not as snappy or endearing as a classic Woody Allen piece. But hey, it’s not half bad!
Shying away from splashy commercial districts such as Central Park or teeming intersection Times Square, The Only Living Boy in New York takes place in and around forgotten pockets and nooks hidden across the rapidly changing NYC expanse — think dust-filled bookstores and tattered studio apartments, complete with flaking paint on plasterboard walls — the use of these uncommon locations bringing a fable-like quality to proceedings. Furthermore, shot on 35mm, the whimsical imagery by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), helps cement that ‘vintage cinema’ vibe, the muted, monotone palette (made up of stony, austere colors) reinforcing the mood and spirit of the city itself. And to top it all off, the impressive score by Rob Simonsen, Foxcatcher (2014), and excellent ‘needle drop’ soundtrack, aid in amplifying the setting’s charm and wonder.
Sure, The Only Living Boy in New York comes with some drawbacks; for one, the movie shares obvious parallels with Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) — so, anyone who’s seen the Mike Nichols steered picture will know where this one’s headed — while a large chunk of the dialogue feels forced and leaden — it’s like, lighten up Loeb, have some fun with your script. Even some of the characters aren’t as interesting or likeable as they ought to be; lead Thomas, who does possess a hint of boyishness, is a little too drab and dreary, Callum Turner, Green Room (2015), struggling to capture the kid’s hunger and yearning. The sightly Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship (2016), on the other hand, sells morally conflicted man-eater Johanna, the London-born bombshell implanting a touch of sympathy and confusion into a character that could have easily come across as manipulative or sociopathic.
Elsewhere, Pierce Brosnan is decent as Thomas’ arrogant tough-love father, the suave 64-year-old oozing with the aristocratic flair, Brosnan undoubtedly trying to make an impression, the former Bond star failing to hit pay dirt since turning in his license to kill back in 2002. Last, but certainly not least, the legendary Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water (2016), shines as W.F. Gerald, a mysterious and wise bohemian writer, Bridges’ nuanced performance channeling the likes of reclusive American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (with a hint of ‘The Dude’), the Oscar winner having a solid rapport with co-star Callum. Oh, and it’s nice to see woman of color Kiersey Clemons, Dope (2015), share the screen with the privileged Thomas, this mixed-race dynamic bringing a level of realism to the drama — who said The Only Living Boy in New York was all about white people and white problems!
Thanks to its sharp 89-minute runtime, The Only Living Boy in New York — a title that also features prominently in the narrative — never outstays its welcome; its breezy and watchable and wraps up on a cleverly cooked, well-seeded third-act twist — which I honestly didn’t see coming. A commendably shot, earnest and upbeat entertainer, the film a tender tribute to old-school NYC, there are worse things to spend one’s time on. Plus it stars Kate Beckinsale — and that’s always a bonus.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner