"People do things without realising them all the time."
I’m all for second chances, and if anyone deserves a second chance it’s Marc Webb. Having made a great impact with the delightful indie romance ‘500 Days of Summer’ he was then thrust straight into the world of blockbusters only to be chewed up and spat out by the corporate machine as Sony failed to make their ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ franchise land. But Webb’s initial talent combined with the very likely scenario of studio meddling gave me hope that once Webb returned to his roots he would be back on form.
After graduating from college and moving into an apartment, young Thomas Webb (Calum Turner) befriends an alcoholic neighbour (Jeff Bridges) who dispenses worldly wisdom alongside shots of whiskey. Webb's world soon comes crashing down when he learns that his father (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with a beautiful and seductive woman (Kate Beckinsale). Determined to break up the relationship, Thomas winds up sleeping with her, launching a chain of events that will change everything that he thinks he knows about his family and himself.
There are two things a you can do with a coming of age movie (okay actually there are a lot more than two but for the sake of this just play along). You can either tell an honest and poigniant depiction of youth, or you can turn it into a shallow wish fulfilment fantasy. Guess which category ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ falls into, bearing in mind that its main character has the same last name as its director. Weirdly though, Webb didn’t write this. The screenplay was actually brought to us by Allan Loeb who penned ‘Collateral Beauty’, a movie so bafflingly terrible that the most effective criticism you can level at it is just repeating its plot summary.
It’s been a while since I saw a movie that seemed to have as much loathing and contempt for its own characters than ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. But that contempt doesn’t result in any interesting studies of said characters, it just seems to flat out hate them and yet still expects the audience to empathise with them. There’s no clinical approach to the way it presents its characters, they are all deeply terrible people but the movie seems to expect you to be invested in their plight. It’s like ‘The Secret if My Success’ but without Michael J Fox, so basically without any value whatsoever.
That being said, while it does present its male characters in a way that is unflattering, it outright hates its female characters. Aside from the fact that any woman in the movie is written exclusively in relation to how they affect the men around them, that effect is exclusively negative. They’re treated as objects who are purely alluring or something that our protagonist has to earn as one would earn a prize. Normally I wouldn’t question a movie’s questionable gender politics providing it seems aware of those warped views and is utilising them to make a statement, but in this case it absolutely is not. According to this movie women seem to be evil and fragile creatures who prey on the men who are in turn also despicable but are forgiven for being so.
Going back to what I said earlier about being brutally honest in your depiction of youth, that isn’t to be found anywhere in this movie. I know many critics have already made this comparison but it’s far too easy. ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ is like ‘The Graduate’ but with no sense of ambiguity, intelligence, complexity, relatability or authenticity. In Mike Nichols masterpiece the characters are highly sympathetic, with Benjamin being portrayed as a nervous kid with no direction in life and Mrs Robinson is a woman looking for some form of companionship. There’s enough ambiguity in the story to sympathise with either side whilst the movie also feels authentic, with every character having the demeanour of what the movie establishes them as.
Putting aside the fact that the character motivations are never remotely established, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ doesn’t have a shred of ambiguity that could allude to a deeper understanding of its story. Its simplistic and watered down to a point where you can’t help but think of it as a fantasy, because there’s no way anyone could be so deluded as to think that this is any kind of reality. What’s even worse is how utterly pretentious and elitist the movie is, concerning itself with themes that only the most self-concerned teenager would find relatable. As I said, if the film showed any sense of self awareness that might indicate it was viewing the attitudes of its characters as a subjective aspect then that would be fine if not actually interesting. But if anything it seems to vindicate them.
Less of a coming of age movie and more of an immature wish fulfilment that never acknowledges just how contemptable it is.