The Only Living Boy in New York Directed by Marc Webb, screenplay by Allan Loeb
By Pamela Zoslov
Simon and Garfunkel are having a pretty good year, with two movies named after their decades-old songs, “Baby Driver” and “The Only Living Boy in New York,” a tune that was a thinly veiled message from Paul Simon to Art Garfunkel, who had flown to Mexico to film Catch-22 (“Tom, get your plane right on time/I know your part’ll go fine”). The erstwhile pop duo may actually hold a record for songs used in movie soundtracks.
The “boy” in The Only Living Boy in New York is Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), a recent college graduate and aspiring novelist. He lives in a squalid flat on the Lower East Side, in rebellion against his rich parents’ upper Manhattan lifestyle. He is beset by young-man woes: his father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), an influential book publisher, is pressuring him to get his career on track; his mother, Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is depressed and dependent on pills and cigarettes; and his pretty love interest, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), has consigned him to the dreaded “friend zone.” What’s a boy to do?
One day he meets his new neighbor, a grizzled character named W.F. Gerald, played by Jeff Bridges with a tousled gray pompadour possibly borrowed from David Lynch. Gerald is everything a young writer manqué could dream of: a cigar-smoking, whiskey-swilling tough guy who is, for some reason, intensely interested in this callow youth’s unremarkable life. Gerald urges Thomas to pursue Mimi, whom he has determined is young and afraid. “Make her fear something more than being with you — not being with you.”
One night on the town, Thomas and Mimi spot his dad canoodling with a beautiful young woman played by Kate Beckinsale. (When, oh when, will philandering movie men learn not to nuzzle their mistresses in the same restaurants, in a city that has 24,000, where their families eat?) Thomas is shocked and aggrieved for his fragile mother, and decides to stalk Dad’s mistress, who is named Johanna. One day she turns around and confronts him, and the encounter turns, implausibly, into an affair. Father and son are now sharing the same woman, a rather icky Oedipal situation. Things aren’t made any more palatable by the fact that Turner, who is British but acting American, is not especially charismatic. (Miles Teller, who was originally cast in the role, might have made the scenario more plausible).
The screenplay was written in 2004 by Allan Loeb, who had recently graduated from college and moved to New York. The script was a “Hail Mary” for Loeb, who at the time was battling a serious gambling addiction. The screenplay landed near the top of the Black List of Best Unproduced Scripts in Hollywood, and Loeb got help from Gamblers Anonymous that allowed him to become a rich and successful screenwriter and producer.
So it’s understandable that the movie is focused on writing and literary ambition. There is narration from different characters’ perspectives — though these are never developed — and tons of wry observations about how much New York has changed, from messy and exciting to safe and boring, now that “the junkies are in the ‘burbs” and “the only soul the city has left is Soul Cycle.” Thomas and Mimi admire at an art gallery a framed cover of The New Yorker, surely the ne plus ultra of bourgeois taste. The bookstore where Mimi toils is called Pale Fire, after the Nabokov novel. Thomas’ parents host smart dinner parties, where the guests lament the loss of the Second Avenue Deli, CBGB’s and the Lenox Lounge. Wallace Shawn, whose presence is mandatory at such affairs, asks, “Do you miss getting mugged?” Thomas chimes in with the New-York-was-better-back-then talk, with a precocious “New York’s most vibrant neighborhood is Philadelphia.”
The Zeus-and-Kronos conflict between Thomas and his dad goes beyond the matter of Johanna (whose name allows the movie to evoke several times Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”). It seems Ethan doesn’t believe in Thomas’ writing talent. When young Thomas showed his father some essays he had written, Ethan pronounced them merely “serviceable.” But Thomas’ new mentor, Gerald, thinks they’re wonderful, an opinion that for reasons later revealed, carries some weight.
The urbane, would-be Woody Allen film, directed by Marc Webb, takes a turn into daytime soap, with revelations that come fast and furious. So many buried secrets are revealed that you want to cover your eyes. The overwritten, overdetermined plot becomes a little embarrassing, especially a scene that requires Bridges’ tough character to cry. (Please, no!) The movie’s point of view is peculiarly male-centric, with women and their work defined only vaguely — Judith, who seems to have been an art writer before marrying philandering Ethan, and now can only simper and smoke; and Johanna, the other woman in the icky erotic rectangle, who does some sort of job at the publishing house and doesn’t even merit a last name.
It’s also a movie about writing in which no one ever seems to sit down and write.
Notwithstanding, the movie has pleasures, among them attractive cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, a stylistically eclectic score by Rob Simonson, and excellent acting, especially by Bridges and Nixon. Grade: B minus