You really have to feel for Thomas Webb (Callum Turner). He’s just graduated from college, lives in his own Manhattan apartment, is handsome and has an ample wardrobe of impeccably-fitting clothing and fashion eyewear, has the choice of further schooling or a job in publishing thanks to his well-off father (Ethan Webb, played by Pierce Brosnan), and has a beautiful woman (Mimi, played by Kiersey Clemons) available on a moment’s notice to be his arm candy and listen to his problems. And he accomplishes all this without working (something was said about him being a tutor, but that won’t carry you far at Manhattan prices). Poor guy, how did he ever get in such a fix?
Therein lies the main problem with Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York, which requires us to empathize with a poor little rich boy who has no real problems other than, perhaps, not getting every single thing he wants right now. And when I say it’s all about Thomas, I mean it—female characters are given particularly short shrift in this film, but even his parents are little more than plot devices, and the only character that’s even remotely rounded, other than Thomas, is the wise old soul (W. F. Gerald, played by Jeff Bridges), who turns up in his building in order to dispense worldly wisdom to an audience of one.
I swear at first I thought The Only Living Boy in New York was a satire, beginning as it does with a voiceover of the grumpy old man variety complaining that New York just isn’t New York any more. But no, in this film such sentiments are meant to be taken seriously, just as you are supposed to find Thomas clever when he says things like “New York’s most vibrant neighborhood at the moment is Philadelphia.” Everyone in this film is a type, beginning with Thomas, whose faux-modest demeanor and plastic-framed eyeglasses recalls Jonah Lehrer, the Next Big Thing of a few years ago (until his books were pulled from the shelves for plagiarism and fabrication as well as being pretty much nonsense all around). Populating a film with caricatures can work in a satire but is totally ineffective in a drama where we’re actually supposed to care about the characters.
I lay the blame primarily at the feet of screenwriter Allan Loeb, who inexplicably continues to get work despite penning a series of bombs (The Space Between Us, Collateral Beauty, Just Go with It). Loeb has apparently never seen a plot cliché he doesn’t like, and while I can’t regale you with all of them here (to do so would be nothing but a series of plot spoilers), I can convey the basic setup. Thomas wants to write, but feels his father should do more to encourage him. He also has the hots for Mimi, but she has other plans for herself, despite the seductive tips he gets from Gerald. Then Thomas discovers that his father is cheating on his mother (Cynthia Nixon), and stalks the Other Woman (Kate Beckinsale), leading to the kind of thing that was done far more provocatively, and far more effectively, 50 years ago in The Graduate. These disparate plot threads are resolved in revelation that’s so obvious that you wonder why you wasted your time waiting for it.
It’s a shame the screenplay is so bad in The Only Living Boy in New York (it’s also a shame that the title rips off a perfectly good Paul Simon song), because if you can get past the story, there’s a lot to like in this film. The acting is good all around, and the cast includes a strong lineup of New York City film regulars like Wallace Shawn and Madhur Jaffrey in small roles. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography makes the upper-class venues which represent normal life to most of the characters glisten like jewels, and sad young literary men everywhere will probably watch this film over and over again in the search for hints as to how they might insinuate themselves into the world it portrays. For the rest of us, however, the story of Thomas and his troubles is just annoying and pointless. | Sarah Boslaugh