Five films into his feature directing career, it’s growing increasingly clear that Marc Webb loves telling stories about very special boys and girls. If “(500) Days of Summer” and the two “Amazing” Spider-Man movies didn’t make that obvious enough, Webb’s most recent movie prior to this month was “Gifted,” a schmaltzy (but reasonably satisfying) drama about a brilliant child who’s capable of doing college-level math. Still, as the only thing he’s ever made that doesn’t revolve around a super privileged (or super-powered) white guy who expects the world to fall at his feet, it was something of an anomaly in his body of work.
Unfortunately, “The Only Living Boy in New York” gets Webb back on track in such a big way that it borders on self-parody. Song reference or not, the title alone should be a major red flag, but there’s no way to fully prepare yourself for the navel-gazing narcissism to come during the film itself. From the very first scene (in which our naïve hero tries to convince a recent hookup that she’s in love with him) to the very last (in which our marginally less naïve hero learns all the wrong lessons from his erotic journey of self-discovery), this is the kind of movie that misleads people into thinking there’s something fundamentally amoral about this kind of movie. There is value in telling stories about entitled white people who are paralyzed by the infinite possibilities available to them. This one just makes it hard to remember what that value might be.
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Here’s the hook for this hyper-metropolitan fairy tale, which is so deeply informed by male fantasy that it probably should have premiered on PornHub: A young man discovers that his dad is having an affair with Kate Beckinsale (sorry, Johanna), but his efforts to confront her result in a torrid affair of his own. Is it really possible that Woody Allen hasn’t already made this movie? Against all odds, “The Only Living Boy in New York” will make you wish that he had. At least his version probably wouldn’t have complicated itself by introducing a magical alcoholic into the mix, here embodied by a bohemian Jeff Bridges who moves into the protagonist’s apartment building and becomes the kid’s therapist / life coach / writing partner / spiritual guru / only friend.
Callum Turner, a deceptively vacant British actor whose work in “Tramps,” “Green Room,” and “Queen & Country” was enough to confirm him as a thrilling new talent, stars as Thomas Webb, a flailing post-grad who’s trying to find himself in the wilds of lower Manhattan. The sort of aspiring young writer who could only hope to fill a book with the things he doesn’t know, Thomas has read too many novels to navigate his own non-fiction. 60 years ago he could have been Jack Kerouac, but now he’s just another rich boy with a great head of a hair, cheekbones that make him impossible to pity, and the slack jaw of a kid who thinks that his life is the only one that’s really happening. He’s not dumb, per se, he’s just flagrantly incurious (something he shares in common with the rest of Webb’s protagonists). It’s unclear if he knows that his name was inspired by the opening lyric of a Simon & Garfunkel song, but he’s probably never asked.
In fairness, neither of Thomas’ parents are great communicators. His father (Pierce Brosnan, lending the movie some major “Remember Me” vibes) is a severely clenched executive at one of the city’s biggest publishing houses, while his mother (Cynthia Nixon) is suffering from clinical depression. It’s a good thing that Thomas has Mimi (rising star Kiersey Clemons, sailing above hackneyed material), his milquetoast pixie dream girl. If only she would have sex with him! They shared one magical night on MDMA (#2017), but now she just wants to be friends. What a bitch.
Of course, it never occurs to Thomas that he’s got nothing to offer her, that Mimi might not be interested in him because he whines all the time while saying things like “SoulCycle is the only soul this city has left” (a typical line of dialogue from a script in which every word causes a mild cringe).
Oh yeah, this is one of those movies that’s nostalgic for a New York that has only ever really existed in art and memories and dreams, a movie where everyone longs for something just because they can’t have it for themselves. That’s especially true of the insultingly weak-willed female characters, whom screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Collateral Beauty,” “Rock of Ages”) manipulates to an extent that borders on misogyny. However, much like “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Only Living Boy in New York” doesn’t hate women, it’s just utterly incapable of imagining their inner lives.
The film shares the egocentrism of its hero, it echoes his inclination towards awing at the girls in his life instead of listening to them. Loeb thinks it’s cute that Thomas doesn’t know how to solve the fairer sex, but it never concedes that people like Mimi and Johanna might be more than puzzles. Loeb, whose resumé has become a damning indictment of the same privilege that his latest screenplay tries to redeem, must have forgotten how Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” mercy killed this screenwriting trope for all the other men who can’t help but default to it (“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them… But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours”).
“The Only Living Boy in New York” tries to apologize for this problem in advance, introducing sporadic blasts of omniscient narration that unpack these people from the inside out. It doesn’t work. Instead of adding depth, the tactic just robs Loeb’s characters of what little mystery they have in the first place. W.F. Gerald (Bridges) quickly becomes the only question mark, but the more we learn about him, the less we care. Bridges, like everyone else in the cast, does a fine job of defaulting to his natural strengths, but his character is so enchanted and so over-invested in Thomas that you start to wonder if he’s even really there. Can anyone else see this guy? Did anyone else interact with him in that scene where they went to the market? The movie doesn’t actually dip into the supernatural, but — like most of the things that Loeb has written, and like all of the things that Webb has directed — this story belongs to a parallel universe that exists in defiance of all known human behavior.
It looks nice, the sun-dappled city views and the jazz-folk soundtrack holding things together at the seams, but everything is backwards. Yes, our world is full of people who are afraid to get out of their own heads, full of lucky young men who learn that what they become isn’t as important as what they were born. But “The Only Living Boy in New York” is set in a fanciful alternate reality where that discovery is the thing that makes someone interesting, and not the thing that requires them to be.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” opens in theaters on August 11.