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It’s quite a feat for a movie to deploy Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” and somehow leave you cold. With its wistful melody, the cathartic swell and gentle retreat of its chorus, the song is like emotional crack. Ryan Murphy made stirring use of it in the final scene of his The Normal Heart for HBO. Years earlier, it helped the climactic, rain-soaked kiss between Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State transcend that film’s cloying cutesiness. (Even those Honda Accord ads may give you the feels.)
But Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York, which both features and is named after the 1970 classic, milks it to alarmingly little effect. That’s probably because nothing in the movie merits or matches the song’s deep sincerity or nostalgic grandeur. Not even close. Not even a little.
Release date: Aug 11, 2017
Penned by Allan Loeb (The Space Between Us, Collateral Beauty), this slick pastiche of male-coming-of-age-story cliches borrows from a slew of similarly themed works, including The Graduate, Wonder Boys, Tadpole, Igby Goes Down, The Door in the Floor, The Squid and the Whale and The Wackness. That list of films — all of which are more interesting and satisfyingly realized than this one — suggests why The Only Living Boy in New York is so ineffectual: It’s hard to make the old feel new again, and even harder when the writer and director barely seem to be trying.
All the major characters in The Only Living Boy in New York feel fatally familiar — including the angsty 20ish protagonist (Callum Turner), his whisky-slurping, wisdom-spouting mentor (Jeff Bridges) and a damaged femme fatale (Kate Beckinsale) — as do the tone, setting, plot, dialogue, voiceover and perky score. That’s not to accuse the film, or its makers, of ineptitude. Webb directed 500 Days of Summer, a Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Zooey Deschanel rom-com that was aggressively quirky but toyed with the genre’s conventions in fresh and charming ways. Even his less gratifying efforts — a passable, if underwhelming, pair of Spider-Man films and last year’s by-the-book weepie Gifted — were crafted with polish and professionalism. But while The Only Living Boy in New York looks nice (it was shot on film by veteran DP Stuart Dryburgh), it’s an unabashed fake — glib and movie-ish in a grating way, with lots of prefab “soulfulness” and none of the texture or rough edges of life (or the winking self-awareness of this summer’s other, much more fun pastiche with a title lifted from Simon & Garfunkel: Baby Driver).
Turner, a gifted British up-and-comer who was terrific in Adam Leon’s recent charmer Tramps (which, alas, went straight to Netflix with no theatrical release), plays a considerably less appealing young New Yorker here. Rich kid Thomas is just out of college and spends his days tooling around the Lower East Side with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), an artsy beauty whom he pines for unrequitedly. He also hangs out a lot with neighbor W.F. (Bridges), an alcoholic author who’s always around to offer a crinkly smile or a piece of platitudinous advice. Playing a cliched, Screenwriting 101 idea of a writer rather than a recognizably real individual, Bridges is saddled with the cringiest dialogue — though he’s such an effortless performer that he succeeds in hitting one of the film’s few notes of authentic emotion.
Another comes courtesy of Cynthia Nixon as Thomas’ mom, Judith, a former artist whose life now mostly consists of popping pills and beaming beside her big-shot publisher husband, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan, coasting), at parties. Ethan is having an affair with sexy freelance editor Johanna (Beckinsale), something Thomas discovers when he spots the two nuzzling at a club one night. Thomas soon takes to stalking Johanna around the city, and before long, they’re sleeping together, too. Cue confrontations, life lessons and changes of heart, as well as an eye roller of a plot twist.
Smoothly made and clocking in at a compact 88 minutes, The Only Living Boy in New York is fairly innocuous as far as misfires go. But it’s thin — none of the characters are developed much beyond the pitch stage — and conspicuously lazy, right down to the song selections. The filmmakers have doubled up on Simon & Garfunkel, using their gorgeous “Blues Run the Game” near the beginning of the film. But as with the title tune, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the choice; it’s just an easy grab for the viewer’s heartstrings. In The Graduate, Mike Nichols used the duo’s work almost contrapuntally, to warm up a chilly story and give it layers of feeling the unhappy, boxed-in characters were mostly unable to express.
There’s no such sophistication here, as confirmed when Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” comes on the soundtrack after, ahem, Johanna starts seeing Thomas on the sly. That’s The Only Living Boy in New York in a nutshell: high-quality parts recycled into a derivative whole that lands squarely on the nose.
Production companies: Big Indie Pictures, Amazon Studios, Bona Fide Productions
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Callum Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Jeff Bridges
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Jeff Bridges, John Fogel, Mari-Jo Winkler
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: David Gropman
Costume designer: Michelle Matland
Editor: Tim Streeto
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis-Wagner
Rated R, 88 minutes
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