SCREEN REVIEW: ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’

Callum Tucker and Kate Beckinsale

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.)

Cynthia Nixon and Pierce Brosnan

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.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The year in entertainment

Our critics run down the best of movies, music, theater, dining and pop culture in 2010

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | jones@dallasvoice.com

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BEST OF THE BEST | The comedy ‘I Love You, Phillip Morris,’ left, was the year’s most entertaining film, while ‘Winter’s Bone’ was buoyed by a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence, below left.

1. I Love You, Phillip Morris. The best comedy of the year is this unlikely love story, told with open-hearted directness, about a gay conman (Jim Carrey), his boyfriend (Ewan McGregor) and their escapades in Texas during the 1990s. Think a gay version of Bonnie & Clyde with some hot sex and hysterical jokes. Only don’t. Whatever, just see it.

2. Winter’s Bone. A girl in the Ozarks must track down her meth-dealing dad or lose her home. Without sentimentality or cloying music, it tells a tale with such visual acuity and simplicity it gobsmacks you with its beauty. Hard watching, sometimes, and excellently acted by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence and veteran Dale Dickey.

3. The Social Network. David Fincher makes Aaron Sorkin’s complex screenplay about the founding of Facebook into the off-handed, slyly FX’d movie equivalent of a page turner, with terrific pacing, pantingly good acting by Jesse Eisenberg and Armie Hammer and a story of great relevance and psychological depth.

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Winter’s-Bone

4. The King’s Speech. Hard to imagine speech lessons being cinematic, but director Tom Hooper does just that in this entrancing historical drama about King George VI (Colin Firth, who may win the Oscar denied him last year for A Single Man) as the stuttering monarch and Geoffrey Rush magnificent as a linguistic coach. We are quite amused.

5. True Grit. After the dreadful detours of Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, the Coens are back in stride with this poetic Western — not a revisionist conceit, but a straightforward character study of revenge, exceptionally well played by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who should win the Oscar.

6. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski finished the editing on this film while under house arrest, which just goes to show Polanski in the worst of circumstances is better than most directors at their best. The best film from the first half of the year, it’s a cagey political thriller than keeps you guessing.

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Scott Pilgrim versus the World,’ below, was better than its box office would indicate.

7. Scott Pilgrim versus the World. Michael Cera’s charms are wearing thin, but he squeezed out the last drips in this quirky fantasy-romance that creates its own internal world of logic. Among the best elements: Kieran Culkin as Cera’s predatory gay roommate.

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SURPRISE, SURPRISE | ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ above, proved to be a hit commercially and critically.

8. The Kids Are All Right. Although the story wandered down a path strewn with clichés, director Lisa Cholodenko still managed to spin it with unique and authentic moments as lesbian spouses Julianne Moore and Annette Bening contend with infidelity and a man in their lives (Mark Ruffalo, rascally and loveable) for the first time. Gay cinema has rarely been as clever and mainstream-compatible as this.

9. Life During Wartime. Todd Solondz’s uncomfortably dark but oddly funny follow-up to his art-house hit Happiness, centered on three sisters and their perversely dysfunctional family, was the most cringe-inducing comedy ever that lacked a bathroom scene or Woody Allen playing a romantic scene with a teenager.

10 . My Name Is Khan and Un Prophete (tie). Hard to chose between these largely foreign-language entries: Khan, one of the best Bollywood films ever with unexpected emotional resonance, and Un Prophete, a French-Muslim version of The Godfather that was a true epic.

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The South American gay film ‘Undertow,  just missed the top 10

Runners-up: Kick-Ass, Megamind, The Secret in their Eyes, Black Swan, Undertow.

Best performances of the year —
Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter; Tommy Lee Jones, Company Men; James Franco, 127 Hours; Robert Duvall, Get Low.

Actress: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan.

Supporting actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right;
Armie Hammer, The Social Network; Christian Bale, The Fighter; Lucas Black, Get Low.

Supporting actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone; Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis, Black Swan; Melissa Leo, The Fighter.

Best non-fiction films: Inside Job; Catfish.

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‘Knight and Day,’ above, was the year’s worst movie.

10 worst films of the year: Unstoppable; Shutter Island; Splice; Love and Other Drugs; The Book of Eli; Edge of Darkness; Skyline; Alice in Wonderland; How Do You Know; Knight and Day.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Queer clips

‘True Grit,’ ‘Rabbit Hole’

The Coen Brothers have always had a peculiar relationship with Texas, maybe because the sense of Wild West recklessness is still cultivated by urbanites. It’s a complex feeling, though: A lone Ranger (sans mask) named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) endures a share of mockery in True Grit, but it’s forgiveable — the movie is just so damn entertaining.

I barely noticed a contraction in the dialogue until the waning minutes of the film, which imbues the tale with a poetic majesty without being stilted. Yet the Coens keep everything in the realm of the real; this isn’t some commonplace revenge fantasy but a devil-in-the-details character study of a girl (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s remarkable) and a wizened marshal-for-hire (Jeff Bridges, better even than his Oscar performance in last year’s Crazy Heart). It avoids predictable, touchy-feely sentimentality while still being emotionally stirring.

Less stirring is Rabbit Hole — perhaps because it tries too hard. A couple (Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart) work through their grief over the death of their child in wildly different ways. It’s a prickly story about yuppies in denial where so many of the characters seem to want to be hated — or at least misunderstood. Grief is hard to portray in small doses (everyone deals with loss uniquely), and to try to make a movie of nothing but is too great a task for director John Cameron Mitchell. Kidman’s OK, but the standout is Miles Teller as a regretful teen. He and Steinfeld should make a movie together.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

True Grit: Five stars; Rabbit Hole: Two stars

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens