By Jack Dignan
For a lot of overseas audiences, The Only Living Boy In New York rubbed them the wrong way. The film, which is already out in several countries including America, received brutally negative reviews, not to mention its failure to connect at the box office, barely scraping in $1 million worldwide. That was about the only thing I knew of this movie prior to my screening. Expectations for it were low, to say the least. Perhaps that’s why I left the theatre strangely pleased with what I’d just watched.
The Only Living Boy In New York is a puzzling film to describe. It’s not that it’s bad or nonsensical, in a similar way with mother! and the complications that arose from avoiding plot spoilers, but it’s simply that the synopsis for this film (please don’t make me type out the title again) doesn’t sound overly enticing. We follow a young book lover named Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), who lives in a small apartment in New York. His father (Pierce Brosnan) disapproves of his lifestyle. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) has a history with illnesses that Thomas fears may return. And his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) doesn’t love him in the same way that he loves her. But that’s when a mysterious stranger enters his life and provides a necessary shake up.
This stranger is none other than W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), Thomas’ new neighbour and mentor figure. The two begin to bond over the queries of life, discussing deep philosophical debates through heavy handed, occasionally self-indulgent but ultimately meaningful dialogue exchanges. Soon, however, Thomas discovers that his father has a secret mistress, known as Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). When going to confront her, Thomas begins to admire her, and before he knows it, this admiration evolves into sexual desires, further complicating his current stance on life.
It is, on the one hand, Pretentious First World Problems: The Movie, but there are deeper meanings in the works that really resonated with me as an audience member. The film plays out as a quirky Woody Allen-wannabe rip off, which does lead to the more uninteresting plot elements, but through its familiarity, it begins to find its way in the world and develop into something worthy of its own merit. Much like its central character, who I was unable to connect with for the film’s first half, The Only Living Blah Blah Blah doesn’t hit as hard as it should. But give it time, stick with it, and there’s genius behind the madness.
While the character of Thomas may not have been the most interesting or likeable of characters, the ever-present supporting cast pull the plot through. Jeff Bridges steals the show as the wise, philosophical neighbour spitting wisdom in every scene. His character arc is the most unexpected of the lot, playing feverishly into sub-plots involving other characters, despite never sharing scenes with any of them. There’s a strong tale of family intertwined between Thomas and Pierce Brosnan’s character Ethan, which takes a rocky road, but one that leads to a satisfying, bittersweet and unconventional conclusion.
Allan Loeb’s screenplay is short and sweet, often working to a strong degree, but constantly falling into the Collateral Beauty trap, a film Loeb also wrote. It’s far better than that abysmal, painful piece of trash, but there’s similar thematics and manipulative plot elements that ring through to this film. Marc Webb brings his usual grace and humanity to the directing, but certain script elements are unable to be saved. Kate Beckinsale’s character proves problematic and underdeveloped, even if she does provide the strongest elements of drama, romance and conflict throughout.
There’s an interesting, thought provoking complexity within the themes of The Only Living Boy In New York that, while not always the most interesting to watch unfold, resonated deeply with me as an audience member. The film will more than likely fail to connect with Australian audiences, simply because nobody’s even aware of this film’s existence, but if you ever happen to catch it, I do beg that you at least give it a chance. I did, and I don’t regret it.
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