3 out of 10
Callum Turner as Thomas Webb
Jeff Bridges as W.F. Gerald
Kate Beckinsale as Johanna
Pierce Brosnan as Ethan Webb
Cynthia Nixon as Judith Webb
Kiersey Clemons as Mimi Pastori
Tate Donovan as George
Wallace Shawn as David
Anh Duong as Barbara
Debi Mazar as Anna
Ben Hollandsworth as Ari
John Bolger as Irwin Sanders
Bill Camp as Uncle Buster
Directed by Marc Webb
Good criticism requires objectivity and resistance to prejudgment; it’s always possible for a rocky start to transform into a smooth ride. But from the smug comparison of ’70s inner city turmoil and present day upper middle class ennui where “the only place urban decay is happening is in Upper West Side dinner parties” in its opening seconds, The Only Living Boy in New York begs you to hate it and never stop.
Despite a strong cast and director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) shooting the hell out of picturesque Manhattan locations, Boy can’t escape the gravity of its own navel. Like many similar films before it, Boy looks for truth in the romantic travails of a New York twenty-something who really just wants to be a writer, but the only insight it has to offer is that Jeff Bridges looks strange now without a beard.
Bridges himself narrates the film of the book he is writing about the life of Thomas Webb (Turner), who lives in his building. Thomas’ life is in turmoil: he works but has not started a career — as his prominent publisher father (Brosnan) reminds him — he’s obsessed with a young woman (Clemons) who does not feel the same about him and he suspects his father has started having an affair with a charming and beautiful freelance editor (Beckinsale). And worst of all, his father has repeatedly quashed his dream of being a writer, the disappointment of which has frozen him from making any decisions about his new problems.
Webb cast a new and able eye on the lovelorn of New York in his breakout, (500) Days of Summer, and he retains the same feel for a strong scene and sweeping visuals even within the confines of a wedding hall or an indie bookstore. If nothing else, The Only Living Boy in New York is a pretty film to look at and many of the individual scenes work just fine if you don’t think about them too hard.
The problem is Boy continually asks you to think about them at which point all of the little flaws in Allan Loeb’s (Collateral Beauty) screenplay become readily apparent.
It’s not that Loeb is a bad writer. His dialogue is frequently engaging as is some of his scene design – an impromptu wedding toast as backdrop to Thomas and Johanna’s first assignation is truly winning and one of Boy’s best moments both in the contrast of moments and what Uncle Buster is actually saying. But it’s lost within a type of story which was old before Woodie Allen first thought about doing more than writing sketch comedy.
A lack of originality isn’t the kiss of death but a lack of self-awareness is: nothing kills interest faster than trolling through clichés and acting like deep truths are being uncovered. Like Brecht, Webb and Loeb announces their intentions at the outset — like romantic confessions delivered in the pouring rain — theoretically in order to subvert them but really just to give license to roll round them.
And it’s not the lives of the middle class, or the children of the middle class, aren’t as worthy of examination as anyone else. It’s that 1) that’s been done a lot and it is very easy and apparent to parrot someone else’s story and 2) the context that encouraged that kind of writing has changed and needs to be kept in mind when setting up the stakes for the characters. Not knowing what kind of career to embark on is not the end of the world and there’s nothing wrong with that unless no one involved realizes this and instead wallows in sour grapes.
Worse than that, however, is easy story progression without requirement of the main character. Hamlet may have been unable to make up his mind, but at least he put on a ploy for Claudius and tried to bedevil Polonius. Thomas just wanders around in a daze as wizened old men and beautiful women leap from the corners of the screen to offer advice or love without prompting.
Even after sitting through the longest 88 minutes of my life, the judgment of minute 1 hasn’t been shaken. The Only Living Boy in New York is a movie we have all seen many, many times. Even if it were the first film an individual had ever seen, it’s reliance on other stories of the type is so complete it would feel derivative.