Film Review: The Only Living Boy in New York

A film for grownups in every way, this disarming romantic triangle has a rare and quite deep literacy.
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One of the most literate films ever made in this country, director Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York comes as a welcome oasis of intelligence in a summer desert of comic-book superheroes and gross-out farces which posit urination as the height of wit.

Primarily concerning itself with writers and writing, Allan Loeb‘s richly populated and observant screenplay centers around aspiring scribbler Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), who is frustrated in every way—starting with a distant dad, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), who happens to be a prominent publisher, unwilling to support him either career-wise  (dismissing his writing as “serviceable”) or in his funky downtown choice of residence. Thomas is besotted by pretty Mimi (fetching yet obnoxious Kiersey Clemons, and just what the role requires), who considers their single tryst as just a one-off and wants to keep things platonic. Things begin to turn around, however, due to two things: Thomas’ discovery that Ethan is having an affair with a beautiful co-worker, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and the appearance in his life of a new neighbor, W.F. (Jeff Bridges), who lavishly quotes Ezra Pound and drinks like a fish, while offering a lot of sage counsel regarding both his love and literary lives.

Starting with a voiceover narration by W.F., the film is also a love letter to New York City and an elegiacally mournful tribute to its more creative if cash-strapped past (“There’s a John Varvatos store where CBGB’s used to be”). Where Woody Allen once celebrated the Manhattan he knew around him, this film revels in what has passed, and the filmmakers take admirable care to include vestiges of a more interesting time that still exist, like one of my favorite haunts, the Argosy Book Store. (Remember bookshops, New Yorkers?) This very classy soap opera benefits greatly from the wonderfully fluid cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh and a classic, sweepingly romantic yet never overpowering music score by Rob Simonsen.

The impressively assembled cast frequently astonishes, with each actor working at the height of his craft and instinct. Always authentically low-key, from his earliest work in The Last American Hero andThe Last Picture Show, Bridges has consistently delivered solid, often memorable work; he’s clearly one of the great film actors. In the hands of almost anyone else, W.F. might have come across as insufferably know-it-all and narcissistically enigmatic, yet his crusty-deep humanity and innate lack of grandstanding make the character the kind of dream mentor everyone wishes they’d had. “Real” has always been this performer’s specialty, as with his brother Beau and father Lloyd, and that quality has never been more needed or better utilized than here. Beckinsale continues to be both magisterially funny and devastatingly alluring (as she was last year in the criminally neglected-at-awards-time Love & Friendship). She’s simply the most seductive woman onscreen today, her magnetism based just as much on her inescapably radiant intelligence as it is on anything fleshly.

Turner, although a tad too buff in the bod to be convincing as a perpetual lit-geek/romantic loser, is impressively sincere and deeply affecting. Cynthia Nixon, as severely depressed Judith—the mother Thomas strives to protect—in a minimum of scenes manages to create a rich and rueful full-scale character, while Brosnan has never been better: This ultimate pretty boy has matured beautifully and makes the seemingly glacial Ethan perhaps the most intriguing character in the movie.

New York stage treasure Bill Camp has a funny, embarassing cameo as a drunk uncle holding the crowd hostage with his wedding toast to a haplessly trapped bride and groom. Even a dinner party that Judith throws—her form of medication, according to her adoring if stymied son—is glamour-cast with the likes of Tate Donovan, Debi Mazar, Wallace Shawn and exotic model-turned-artist Anh Duong making pithy remarks about Brooklyn being the new Manhattan (although Thomas thinks, rightly, that the honor belongs to Philadelphia).

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