Oedipus in the Big Apple
Directed by Marc Webb and written by Allan Loeb, The Only Living Boy in New York is a movie that sneaks up on you, surprises you just when you think you’ve figured it out and makes you love it all—the sneaking, the figuring out and the surprises.
For the first half-hour or so, it feels like we’re in for a sort of 21st-century rehash of 1967’s The Graduate (using a Simon & Garfunkel song for the title couldn’t possibly be a coincidence). We meet Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), a college graduate slouching around Manhattan’s Lower East Side wondering what to do with his life. Like The Graduate’s Ben Braddock, he rejects his Upper West Side privilege while wallowing in it when he’s in the mood. His publisher father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) makes it clear that Thomas’ aimlessness is trying his patience. Meanwhile, Thomas’ mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon) trembles with a fragility borne of some unspecified crisis in the past.
At one of his parents’ upscale dinner parties, Thomas reflects that “New York has lost its soul”—really just a deflective way of saying that he’s trying to find his own. Wherever his soul is, he thinks it’s found its mate in Mimi (Kiersey Clemons, who like Turner is definitely going places). Thomas is besotted after a one-night stand while she has withdrawn into the no-man’s-land of can’t-we-be-friends.
The Only Living Boy in New York opens in a literary manner, with a God’s-eye-view narrator introducing the characters and telling us their inner thoughts. The voice, growly with smoke and whiskey, sounds vaguely familiar, and the movie’s first surprise comes when we meet its owner: Thomas’ new neighbor W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges). Gerald gently shoulders his way into Thomas’ life, becoming a rumpled, boozy amalgam of a therapist, guru, and surrogate father.
Thomas needs the guidance; his life, without losing its diffident aimlessness, is about to get messy. Again like Ben Braddock, he drifts into sex with a woman far more worldly than he—only this time it’s not his girlfriend’s mother, it’s his father’s mistress.
Her name is Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and Thomas spots his dad nuzzling her across a crowded nightclub. He begins following—well, stalking—her. But this impulse to protect his mother soon becomes more complicated. Johanna confronts him (he’s not subtle about his surveillance); she more or less invites him to seduce her, and he complies.
Up to now Loeb and Webb (the director, not the character) have unfolded their story like a well-constructed novel. This is where we think we’ve figured it out, and it’s where they start trotting out the surprises. Some are plot points I won’t disclose, but the big one is the movie’s evolution from its neat literary constructs to the messy disorder of real life.
The Only Living Boy in New York may be studded with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan (“Visions of Johanna”), The Graduate, Woody Allen and Sundance TV, but it manages to synthesize all that into a personality of its own. There’s a kind of magic in that, and it’s a pleasure to watch it happen.