Igby (Kieran Culkin) is a troubled teenager from a wealthy family who has been thrown out of so many schools that his overbearing mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) decides to send him to military academy as a last resort. He is bullied at the academy and learns nothing new, so he agrees to help paint a spacious new apartment owned by his capitalistic godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum) during his holidays. Now he has the opportunity to meet new people, like D.H.'s girlfriend Rachel (Amanda Peet) and her artist friend Russel (Jared Harris), but it's when he chances upon Sookie (Clare Danes) at a party that his life begins to change - and not necessarily for the better.
J.D. Salinger refused to have Catcher in the Rye filmed at all, so if you want to watch a film along the same lines, you'll have to make do with stuff like Igby Goes Down, which was written by the director Burr Steers. It's a coming of age tale like many others, where the Holden Caulfield-style protagonist drifts through his life until he finds his place in the world. Igby's place, he thinks, is not with the high society types he meets and is related to, and he treads the traditional path of rebellion and sarcasm instead.
Culkin brings the right quality of innocence and immature cynicism to the role, and spars well with his co-stars. Everyone in this film takes every opportunity to snipe at the others, in often witty lines; whether this means they're jaded, or are unable to accept and receive any affection, is unclear until halfway through, when the jibes and caustic remarks give way to a more emotional tone. The story opens with the unconscious Mimi, who is dying from cancer, being murdered by Igby and his brother Ollie (Ryan Phillippe) using a plastic bag tied over her head. From this we can see that the characters' relationships are more than a little damaging.
Sookie almost becomes Igby's girlfriend (or at least she sleeps with him), but it's the apparently heartless Ollie she takes up with in the end, despite Igby's sensitivity. For example, Igby tells her the tragic story of his schizophrenic father (Bill Pullman) as they lie in bed together late at night. Ollie uses the same story to get Sookie into bed. Elsewhere, D.H.'s relationship with Rachel messes her up beyond repair (D.H. treats relationships as contracts). The film's tone can be summed up by the scene where Igby, now reduced to delivering drugs, meets a former teacher of his and relates a made up story of how the favoured Ollie has had an accident; he starts off being funny, yet ends up wounded and pathetic.
In some ways, Igby Goes Down demonstrates how a previously comfortable lifestyle can give you the opportunity to be seriously uncomfortable with your life and finally wallow in self pity. Igby dreads taking part in a world he detests and where he fears he will suffer a breakdown like his father, but ends up closing off his options so that he has nowhere to go but down. How you reconcile the witty first half with the downbeat events that follow is up to you, but, while the sardonic humour continues sporadically, it means that the film is an uneven experience. A lot like life, I suppose. There is a ray of hope at the end, though. Music by Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen.