Director: Marc Webb/2017
Returning to theaters with his second feature film in 2017 is Marc Webb. Finding success with his breakout indie film 500 Days of Summer, Webb was handed the keys to the Spider-Man franchise, seeing it crash and burn in two installments. Thankfully, this led to the latest Spider-Man: Homecoming re-uniting the character with Marvel’s cinematic universe, and thus allowing Marc Webb to get back to heartfelt stories on a much smaller budget, that seems to be his wheelhouse. Earlier this year, that story was Gifted about a young child who is a math-prodigy, starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, and Octavia Spencer. Reception at the box office was muted, but it did make three times its budget, despite only earning $24 million domestically.
The opening narration quotes W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (with acknowledgement to Lou Reed): “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This quote serves as the lead in to these characters and this story, but in many ways the opposite is true for this story as The Only Living Boy in New York lacks conviction, and tries to make up for it in passionate intensity.
Webb’s latest film, The Only Living Boy in New York enters the box office with a star-studded cast, but a five year journey trying to get it to the screen. Then end result is a mixed bag of a movie. When it works, it works well, but the story is uneven and tries a bit too hard to wrap things up with a bow, asking us to be fully invested in the relationships of these characters without taking all the steps that would allow us to feel more by the time it all wraps up.
Titled after a Simon & Garfunkel song, The Only Living Boy in New York follows young Thomas Webb (Callum Turner-Green Room, Assassin’s Creed), a recent college grad who is living in New York’s lower east side pining for Mimi Pastori (Kiersey Clemons-Dope, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), a beautiful girl who is Thomas’ best friend, and who has permanently stuck him in the “friend zone”.
Thomas’ father, Ethan Webb (Pierce Brosnan – James Bond, The November Man), is the head of a publishing house, yet has steered Thomas away from even thinking about being a writer, one of his passions as a kid.
Thomas’s mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon – Sex and the City, A Quiet Passion) is in a fragile state emotionally, and clings to the notion that they have the “perfect family”, hosting get-togethers at their home with artists and the like to show off the facade. Thomas believes that anything could send her over the edge and is very careful to be the peacemaker, which is one of the reasons he stays nearby instead of pursuing any dreams….that, and hoping that Mimi will finally long for him the way he does for her.
We are introduced to a new neighbor of Thomas, W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water, True Grit), who seems to be able to read Thomas pretty well, and begins to serve as a listening board and mentor to Thomas as several events come crashing together forcing Thomas to finally learn how to decide what it is that he wants out of life.
The rejection of Mimi, the fragile state of his mother, and the distance between he and his father over his career plans fall a distant second to the event that will shape him forever, and that is seeing his father out with his mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale – Underworld, The Aviator).
Initially, Thomas follows Johanna to learn more about her so he can gain enough confidence to tell her to stop seeing his father so his mother won’t be ruined. Eventually, he must confront everything he has been juggling, as well as what he discovers about his neighbor, which is complicated further when he finds himself falling for his father’s mistress, Johanna.
The film flows like the narrative of a novel, with good reason. As I mentioned, the title of the film is lifted from Simon & Garfunkel, with the character of Johanna alluding strongly to the Bob Dylan song “Visions of Johanna“, which is referenced in the film. The opening narration quotes W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (with acknowledgement to Lou Reed): “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This quote serves as the lead in to these characters and this story, but in many ways the opposite is true for this story as The Only Living Boy in New York lacks conviction, and tries to make up for it in passionate intensity.
As a “coming of age” story, The Only Living Boy in New York tries too hard to be culturally hip and witty like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, but overplays that hand at times. The character of Mimi seems lost in how to react to Thomas, especially as he begins to “grow up”. Kate Beckinsale, while playing the part well, is never really given anything in the script to tell us why she is willing to entertain relationships with two generations of the Webb family (in the film, but not the director), when we learn clearly which direction she wanted to follow all along. The character tropes are over-used as well, the mean father, the fragile mother, the confused son, the mentor, etc. Climatic twists at the end don’t make up for the caricatured view of the world, and of New York, that are passed off in the film.
The film, while entertaining to a point, mainly due to the gravitas of the cast and their ability to rise above the lines on the page and the directorial instructions, falls flat due to the poor script from Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty, Just Go With It, Rock of Ages), and safe direction from Marc Webb. There is a story here, and one that could be quite good, and so its disappointing to have this cast and not be able to deliver something special. At least one can play some Simon & Garfunkel, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan and overcome whatever disappointment still lingers after the credits have rolled.