Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) is the nerd-handsome, post-college scion of a wealthy Upper West Side couple who wears his scruffy mop of hair, bee-stung lips and mopey, bespectacled eyes like a uniform of overprivileged angst. He’s in love with a girl — he’s even slept with her, once (he remembers the exact date, too) — but she’s little more than an unattainable statue of hetero-hormonal lust; she likes him “as a friend,” and doesn’t see why he wants to muddle things up. Oh, and she has a boyfriend, how can he expect her to be available?
Young love. So stupid. So real.
Thomas eventually seeks counsel from a mysterious downstairs neighbor played by Jeff Bridges, whose elliptical advice recalls The Dude without the halo of pot smoke and with a nicer wardrobe. When Thomas catches his father (Pierce Brosnan) cheating on his mom (Cynthia Nixon) with Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), he refocusses his obsession on her — putatively to protect his prickly, bipolar mother, but ultimately because she’s a woman who gives him the attention he craves. And Johanna’s fucking daddy, so he gets the bonus of Oedipal revenge.
The Only Living Boy in New York is directed Marc Webb, who helmed both of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies (Amazing 1 and 2). But before he sold out to Hollywood’s voracious comic-book-adaptation leviathan, Webb directed the delightful (500) Days of Summer, another wistful romance about a sad-sack doomed because he “feels too much.” It’s a much tighter fit for his skill-set — an NYC populated by laconic hipsters instead of mutant lizards and superconducting humanoids. (Although, to be fair, UWS denizens are their own form of mutant.)
Screenwriter Allen Loeb (Collateral Beauty, The Space Between Us) has mastered the kind of arch but lovely dialogue that Whit Stillman has a patent-pending on — smart and erudite, but not overtly comedic. (The Coens and Woody Allen do the same thing, but there’s usually a punchline lurking in the back somewhere.) Its detached modernism evokes the city-lit of the 1980s and ’90s; the presence of Wallace Shawn even completes the circle of its My Dinner with Andre intellectualism. None of these are criticism. Indeed, it’s refreshing to experience such smart, omniscient narration from a newfound source.
The poignant voice-overs that slyly comment on a montage of assorted characters bearing out the ideas (another Woody speciality) are wonderful, as are the performances that undergird them. Turner recalls Eddie Redmayne with sex appeal, and Bridges inquisitive squints betray an earned wisdom. (“Congratulations Thomas — your world is becoming contextual,” he imparts.) Even in the smallish role of the fragile mom, Nixon bristles with lived-in pain.
Loeb does too-happily imbue Thomas with a faux moral rectitude, and the plot complications are less complications the tropes of the genre (including a closeted gay billionaire who uses Johanna as a beard and a tearful lovers’ confrontation in a rainy alley at night). But who really cares? Romantic comedies — or dramadies, which Only Living Boy is — rely on expectations and how we deal with them. The wandering hopelessness of hearts coming together and eventually breaking is universal.
The template for this kind of savvy storytelling dates back to at least The Graduate; there’s even a Paul Simon song on the soundtrack. This doesn’t detract from the film’s originality, but ties it to a greater community of sophisticated, urbane relationship movies. The Only Living Boy in New York deserves its spot inside that pantheon.
Four stars. Opens Friday at the Angelika Mockingbird Station and Cinemark Plano.