Marc Webb's career as a feature film director has been a consistent series of ups-and-downs. He arrived on the map thanks to the entertaining and lovable (500) Days of Summer; ran into some rough terrain under immense studio pressure with the Amazing Spider-Man blockbusters; and earlier this year reestablished his footing with the cute and earnestly dramatic Gifted. We'd love to say that he continues this upward trajectory with his newest movie, The Only Living Boy In New York, but lacking any of the fun that served to highlight the best elements of Webb's past work, it comes across as intensely pretentious and is almost entirely motivated by unlikable characters.
Based on an original screenplay by Allan Loeb, The Only Living Boy In New York centers on Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), a cynical and dejected wannabe writer who lives in contempt of his rich, Upper West Side parents (Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon) by slumming it in his Lower East Side apartment. When this 20-something isn't grousing about how New York has "lost its soul," or trying to un-friend zone himself with his crush, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), he's recounting all of his problems with an alcoholic author (Jeff Bridges) who has just moved in to his building.
Things take a turn for the dramatic when a night on the town with Mimi leads Thomas to discover that his father (who he hates) has been having an affair with a woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Claiming to act in the name of protecting his emotionally fragile mother, the protagonist begins investigating this illicit relationship, but thanks to hormones and emotional issues, instead winds up sleeping with Johanna himself. Most of the film primarily hinges on the love triangle formed between Thomas, his dad and Johanna, but the despicableness of the characters mostly just makes you want them all to wind up miserable.
Above all, it's the characterization of Thomas -- specifically not Tom -- that ultimately makes the film a sincere challenge to enjoy. The protagonist is supposed to come across as a maturing, worldly young adult with shades of Holden Caulfield, but instead translates as an eye roll-worthy hipster who repeatedly and embarrassingly quips about how New York's most vibrant neighborhood is Philadelphia. You need to care about him in order to care about anything in the story, and it's a hurdle that the movie is never able to leap.
In contrast, Jeff Bridges is his usual, enjoyable Jeff Bridges self, though it's hardly a unique take on the drunk author trope, and he doesn't exactly do anything for most of the film beyond listen to his young neighbor's problems. In fact, because the entire narrative is driven by Thomas' perspective, almost every character is paper thin (Pierce Brosnan is your stereotypical cinematic disappointed father; Kate Beckinsale is sexual and secretive, etc.) and defined merely by their relationship with the protagonist -- with maybe a splash of voice over narration. It's a rather significant problem, as without real personalities audiences are persistently left wondering why Mimi or Johanna have any interest in him (in the case of the former, Thomas accuses her of being a pretty girl recruiting rejections in their first scene together, and I spent the rest of the movie wondering why she would ever want to see him again).
The Only Living Boy In New York does buy some of its credibility back with moderately well-installed narrative turns in the third act, but it doesn't wind up having the perspective changes necessary to make you reconsider everything that happens in the first two-thirds of the story. Without getting too far into spoilers, it's an ending that makes you reconsider everything that comes before it and look at pawns within the plot differently than you did initially -- but narrative growth doesn't satiate quite like character growth. You may look at the situation differently, but you still recognize Thomas as a pretentious prick, and without any emotional investment in what's happening to him none of it matters.
There are plenty of instances where I'll stand up for a movie about bad people doing bad things to other bad people, but those titles typically hinge on heroes and villains that can at least be called charismatic, in stories that provide real flavor. Marc Webb has demonstrated that he is much better than the work put forth in The Only Living Boy In New York, and hopefully next time around he'll have the opportunity to work with better material.
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