The Only Living Boy in New York

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 18, 2017

Callum Turner and Kate Beckinsale star in 'The Only Living Boy in New York'
Callum Turner and Kate Beckinsale star in 'The Only Living Boy in New York'  

From the opening scene of "The Only Living Boy in New York" -- an illustrated montage in which pencil drawings scribble themselves to the rasp of Jeff Bridges' narration -- it's more than abundantly clear what this movie is. It's a slick, taut, self-consciously clever work, and it sings the praises (and a simultaneous dirge) for New York City. (The first proper image we're shown is that of a New Yorker cover, mounted and framed.) It's a hermetic piece, about a hermetic and self-regarding place, and it's peopled by New York denizens that are just as self-absorbed as the city itself and, for that matter, this very movie.

That's not to say the film doesn't have its charms, or that it's not truly smart and cutting. It's all of that, plus it has a few distinctive tics -- one being repetition; within the first three minutes we've heard twice about how New York has lost its soul, and a wisecrack about the city's "most vibrant neighborhood" being Philadelphia is offered up twice.

The author is this witticism isn't Bridges -- who plays a nameless novelist; well, not nameless, but someone whose name is concealed for part of the time, and with good reason as it turns out -- but rather Thomas (Callum Turner), a tall, sharp-featured young man who's in love with a beauty named Mimi (Kersey Clemons) following a one-night stand. Thomas has the date of their hookup memorized, and he references it often; Mimi, however, is not so interested in the past as in the future, which for her includes post-graduate studies in Croatia.

Spotted by the novelist in his hallway in a building on the Lower East Side -- an address that gives his wealthy, accomplished parents heartburn -- Thomas soon finds he's befriended the older man. Thomas, too, is a writer, though he's never been encouraged to follow that passion; his father works in publishing and knows too well the heartbreak and chaos writers face. (On the other hand, who doesn't?) But the older novelist likes Thomas and Thomas, in turn, likes being heard and like the attention the older man pays him. Soon he's pouring out his heartache to the older man, who -- writer that he is -- perspicaciously fills in any blanks Thomas might leave in the tales he tells. Not that Thomas leaves that many; he describes Mimi as being a direct product of God, "not second generation."

A sudden and disturbing turns of events leads to a whole different tale of woe for Thomas to relate, though. Out with Mimi one night, and still trying to coax her into an enduring romance, Thomas spots his father (Pierce Brosnan) int eh company of an impossible gorgeous longer woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Fearing that his depressive mother (Cynthia Nixon) will kill herself or worse is she ever discovers the affair, Thomas decide to take action, but his efforts are half-hearted and lack conviction; Johanna spots him a mile off and takes the initiative, propositioning him before he can work up a proper head of steam.

What starts out as a game of cat and mouse between Thomas and Johanna swiftly turns into something more serious, though -- something along the lines of what Bridges' older novelist terms "messy," which is to say, uncontainable, uncontrollable, and destined for a sorry end. Thomas, dutiful sponge of influences that he is, comes to repeat the older man's vocabulary; stuck in an impossible spot, all he can tell his mother is, "Things got messy and I want to bail. But I can't."

That latter phrase is an example of the movie's other major tic, a far more aggravating and less fruitful one. Again and again the dialogue throws up such predictable and hackneyed lines, to the point that the audience can mouth along with them. The actors do better line readings, of course, but when the viewer already knows what a character is going to say, well before he or she says it, that's a pretty good sign of some pretty lame writing.

The plot, too, falls into deeply cliched grooves, such that the characters go through exactly the sort of dance you know at once they're going to. What ameliorates the sense of tepid plotting is the clever way young Thomas, in his moral rectitude and jealousy, falls right into a trap -- or, rather, a gap, that which lies between his own inexperience and the world's weary, but deep, complexities. Amazingly, the movie manages to pull off a sense of gratification when Thomas, in his turn, ripens and matures. Exactly how he gets there -- and the surprises the movie holds for him, is a matter of screenwriter Allan Loeb's talent for setting up, and then diving into, sticky situations. As Thomas' mother tells him, "The only way through is through" -- another trite line, and yet it's one that the film takes to heart.

If anything, one might wish the film had gone even farther, but for it to have done what it has -- sitting in a pit of its own urban provincialism, hard and bright as a diamond and as alluringly lethal as a hateful smile -- is, in itself, nothing short of refreshing.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.