New York is not what it was. This is obvious every time one walks down the street and sees a Starbucks or McDonald’s where there was once a vinyl record store or a beautifully grimy dive bar with the best live rock this side of CBGB (which is also long gone). Thus Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York is understandably wistful for the decayed grandeur that has been replaced by corporate modernity—creative excitement supplanted for safe mundanity. Yet the New York in Webb’s film, right down to its evocative title being borrowed from an underrated Simon and Garfunkel tune, is a fantasy, one where New York remains a vintage wonderland for white males that’s been made charming by oh, so many Woody Allen movies. They even get Wallace Shawn in for a cameo.
But even with its Allen-esque aspirations, The Only Living Boy is hardly breathing at all. Less a vibrant ode to the past and more a misty-eyed ramble from a kid speaking about a Manhattan he’s never been in, the film’s warm vibes only come alive when the adults who fill the periphery take center stage, including Pierce Brosnan, Kate Beckinsale, and a delightfully garbled Jeff Bridges. When these folks are pulling the eponymous child Thomas (Callum Turner) into their gravity, that old New York which is supposed to still pulsate to the rhythms of Gershwin—or at least Peter, Paul, and Mary—lives again.
However, as Thomas laments to his old school author neighbor, Bridges’ stylishly disheveled W.F. Gerald, maybe this boy’s young life isn’t that interesting. W.F. convinces him otherwise, but we think Thomas got it right the first time.
The film itself has a seductively appealing premise. As the son of a successful but unhappy publisher named Ethan (Brosnan), Thomas is floating through life after dropping out of Columbia. Refusing to take his father’s offers of help, he has hidden away in his one-bedroom on the Lower East Side while supporting himself as a tutor—we said this was a fantasy, right?—and pining after the incredibly chic girl (Kiersey Clemons) at his local independent bookstore.
When Thomas meets his published neighbor, who appears as if “the Dude” had received an erudite education and ended up in Hannah and Her Sisters, the young lad is merely looking for advice on how to woo his crush and deal with a dad who wants to push him into publishing when all the kid really desires is to write.
But his life will suddenly become a lot more complicated after Thomas and Clemons’ Mimi accidentally stumble on an old jazz nightclub where papa Ethan is on a date with Johanna (Beckinsale), decidedly not Thomas’ mother. That thankless role of saintly soul falls to Cynthia Nixon, whom is the only thing Thomas likes about his Upper West Side childhood. So he puts it on himself to stalk follow Johanna, day after day, in search of answers. She of course notices the 20-year-old walking right behind her and then gives him all the answers he wants in her bed.
There’s a deliciously amoral streak running through The Only Living Boy in New York’s earnest stare. A story of a son being seduced by his father’s mistress has all the appeal of a comedy that Simon and Garfunkel might have scored themselves once upon a time. There’s even talk in this film by Mimi about how Thomas is becoming “one of them.” The them is the corrupted and complacent older generation. Yet the film’s own nostalgia for the past makes these proclamations of purity seem dishonest, and if we want to really speak truth, it’s the older folks that give the movie its crackle.
Like a writer reading the first chapter of his latest triumph, Bridges intones with maximum gravel the storybook-like machinations of Thomas’ life and the people in it. An entire film narrated this way could even be appealing, as are the scenes of Brosnan slowly realizing his unambitious Millennial son might be sticking his nose in places it doesn’t belong. Beckinsale meanwhile remains as beguiling as ever and seems to relish at the least being able to play a greater vampire than she has in any Underworld, casting a spell over our would-be romantic hero who never had a chance.
However, the film’s disinterest in understanding why Johanna would even find a curiosity in this whiny malcontent other than as a power move underscores the hollowness of it all. Johanna is less a character than an ideal, a great proxy for a New Yorker short story. But the movie has neither the nimbleness of a dirty limerick or the grace of a genuinely moving drama. Consequently, it’s like being in a novelty store filled with fuzzy memories for mysterious lives lived. After two hours, it’d have been nice to know something about the antiques that occupy it.
The irony is that there is a definite history unearthed about Ethan, W.F., and other characters as the film winds down to its conclusion. A movie about that drama sounds, at least from the outside, like it could have been a pleasantly crisp walk through Central Park. But as merely third act background, we’re left with the boy in the forefront who despite his allocutions about the past represents everything he despises in modern New York: a glossy emptiness.
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