Film Review: The Only Living Boy in New York

by Carrie Kahn on August 11, 2017

Let your honesty shine, shine, shine… Except when it doesn’t, like in this phony, affected picture   

Thomas (Callum Turner) confronts Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), his father’s mistress.

The word “serviceable’ gets bandied about quite a bit in director Marc Webb’s new film about a young writer, which is ironic, since The Only Living Boy in New York is anything but. In fact, serviceable is actually far too kind a word for this hackneyed, derivative embarrassment.

Webb, The Amazing Spider-Man director who fared better with 2009’s 500 Days of Summer and even the corny but satisfying Gifted from earlier this year, does himself no favors by pairing here with screenwriter Allan Loeb, who penned the critically panned Collateral Beauty and The Space Between Us. Loeb certainly doesn’t up his game here, contributing a clunky script filled with clichéd, groan-inducing dialog that Webb, in turn, directs with an unflinching sincerity, when a winking, ironic hand would serve the material better.

You know you’re in trouble already with the film’s title, which is lifted from an old Simon and Garfunkel song. That the picture uses the song’s protagonist’s name for its main character as well doesn’t inspire much confidence for an original story. Indeed, the entire film feels like a retread of The Graduate, as directed by a Woody Allen wanna-be.

Young Thomas (Callum Turner, l.) finds a friend and mentor in his new neighbor, W.F. (Jeff Bridges).

That description pretty much nails the plot and tone right there, but if you’re rusty on your film history and need a bit more, I’ll oblige. Callum Turner’s recent college grad Thomas Webb (no relation to the director, though the filmmakers acknowledge that Thomas is named for Charles Webb, the author of The Graduate novel) is aimless and adrift in New York City. He’s pining for Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), who just wants to be friends, and trying to win the respect of his distant, disapproving father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), who’s the one who terms his son’s writing “serviceable.” In short order, Thomas: a.) befriends a wise and crusty alcoholic new neighbor, W.F. (apparently Loeb forgot the much needed and highly appropriate “T” as the middle initial), played by the usually reliable and clearly slumming Jeff Bridges; b.) discovers his father is having an affair with the glamorous and aloof Johanna (Kate Beckinsale, and yes, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” gets airplay); and c.) falls into an inexplicable affair with Johanna, which leads to one of the most glaring, unapologetic thefts of another film not intentionally done for parody.

Webb and Loeb construct a bedroom scene that is a frame by frame carbon copy of the famous Benjamin/Mrs. Robinson “What was your major subject at college?” scene, right down to Beckinsale’s mournful stare and lit cigarette. There’s a fine line between homage and blatant thievery, and this moment is without a doubt the latter. Throw in more Allen-esque pretentious academic tropes (Wallace Shawn even makes an appearance as a dinner party guest, at which someone muses, “Soul Cycle is the only soul the City has left,” in what passes for a bon mot as the bourgeois guests lament that the City has lost its edge), not one but two hokey rain drenched montage scenes, a droll but knowing voiceover narration by Bridges, and lines like “You really don’t know how the world works; you’re a child,” and you’ll have a pretty good sense of the unimaginative rehash of a picture that Webb and Loeb have put together here.

Cynthia Nixon and Pierce Brosnan play Thomas’s troubled parents, Judith and Ethan.

Even the respectable cast can’t save this stale mess. Turner, who, distractingly, looks a lot like a young Andy Samberg, is game enough, but both he and Clemons spit out Loeb’s artificial lines like they just learned them two minutes before the cameras rolled, and know the language is idiotic. And Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, who was so great in last year’s Hell or High Water, appears to be phoning it in here, seeming vaguely confused by his very presence in this sub-par production. A scene in which W.F. actually sobs is almost mortifying to watch. Bridges is one of our finest living actors, but no one wants to see The Dude weep. Beckinsale is one note as the chilly, sophisticated mistress, perfecting her cool Mrs. Robinson persona. Cynthia Nixon, who plays Thomas’s unhappy mother, fares the best of the cast, perhaps due, in some part, to the fact that her character at least has clear motivations for her actions and feelings. One of the film’s fundamental flaws is that all the other characters’ motivations are either never made clear, or are outright unbelievable. We never get a sense, for example, as to why Johanna would sleep with both Ethan and Thomas, and we never understand why Thomas would be attracted to both Johanna and Mimi, a blank slate whose sole virtue seems to be her beauty.

The first three-quarters of the film are derivative and ridiculous, and the last quarter, in which a major secret is revealed, is the soapiest of melodrama. By the time this big reveal comes, it’s far too little, too late. We don’t care about any of these people, and we want to shout an exasperated “Why!?” at all of them. Willa Cather famously wrote that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” While true, that doesn’t make for exciting cinema, especially when we’re presented with a virtual replica instead of original storylines. It’s okay to be inspired by similar ideas, but they need a fresh perspective. On that note, if you’re a fan of The Graduate-type stories, skip this tired resurrection, and instead check out the German film A Coffee in Berlin, which at least brings an original spin to the ideas that Webb and Loeb so clearly admire, yet can’t seem to make their own

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The Only Living Boy in New York opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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