By Preston Wilder
Mimi works at a bookshop called ‘The Pale Fire’, named after the John Shade poem in the novel by Nabokov; her boyfriend’s in a band called Fahrenheit 185, named after the perfect temperature for cooking heroin. That’s the kind of milieu we’re talking about in The Only Living Boy in New York. Mimi’s not the point, however; the point is Thomas (Callum Turner), the titular boy, who believes that New York’s lost its soul and has even come up with a witty line to the effect that the city’s most vibrant borough is now Philadelphia. He tries it out on Mimi – whom he’d very much like to be his girlfriend – and she thinks it’s clever. Emboldened, he tries it out at his parents’ dinner party for their artist friends. Only his mother laughs.
Who could speak badly of this movie? It has no business playing at the multiplex, and in fact it’s barely even opening (one show only, at 10.30pm; I give it a week). It’s set in a world of writers and bibliophiles, airy Manhattanites talking of the Upper West Side and the old days of CBGB. Admittedly it’s not some obscure no-budget indie, being directed by Marc Webb who made The Amazing Spider-Man (that was the Spider-Man reboot before the current reboot) – but it’s still a breath of fresh air, the sort of film where W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), our hero’s acerbic new neighbour, comments on the goings-on as follows: “Congratulations, Thomas. Your world is becoming contextual”.
Is it any good? A film that employs the word ‘contextual’ in casual conversation has earned the right to waive that question – but only up to a point. Suffice to say that Only Living Boy (named after the Simon & Garfunkel song) is consistently civilised and sometimes perceptive, in the brittle New York style of Whit Stillman or Woody Allen, but never breaks through to next-level insight or wisdom, going instead for a glib last-minute twist. The closest it comes to profundity is actually its most embarrassing scene, a wedding speech where a half-drunk uncle talks of “the dramatics of marital love” while Webb cross-cuts between the various characters, each one implicitly a “puzzle” that can never be solved. Oh boy.
The plot is simple enough: Thomas, caught in post-college floundering, discovers that his dad (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with a younger woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale) and plans to leave his mum (Cynthia Nixon). Mum is fragile, and this would destroy her, so our hero decides to confront Johanna and break up the dalliance, but – well, one thing leads to another. The weak link is definitely Beckinsale (or her character), who’s purely a catalyst with no real personality. There’s a long post-coital conversation where Thomas tries to find out more, asking about her childhood in London – and it’s painfully obvious that the script hasn’t fleshed her out, which is why it resorts to extracting information in this unsubtle fashion. Worse, it’s obvious that the stuff we learn about her past (even her father’s suicide) doesn’t really make any difference; Beckinsale tries hard, but glamorous Johanna might as well be a closed door with a sign reading ‘Exit Here for Coming-of-Age’ plastered on it.
Not that Thomas needs to come of age, being already in his 20s – but he’s “an innocent, a child,” says Johanna tenderly; jug-eared, bespectacled, a boy without mystery. “It made him nurturing, and too boring to fall in love with,” notes the omniscient narrator – one of many well-spoken lines in the voice-over, though in fact the most literary line (a superb quote from Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”) doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the plot, and feels like it’s only there because someone thought it sounded sophisticated.
That’s a frequent problem in The Only Living Boy in New York, a sense that the film isn’t quite worthy of its cultured pretensions. “People do things all the time without realising it,” says Johanna, pointing out to unworldly Thomas that his mum, far from wanting to stay married, may subconsciously be pushing his dad away – and a film that really opened up its characters’ inner lives in that way would be some kind of masterpiece, but Only Living Boy is only intermittently successful. (Its most skilful dissection is probably of Mimi, subtly revealed as a narcissist by her advice to Thomas when he tells her of Dad’s affair.) Still, at a time when adults visit the multiplex with gritted teeth, it seems perverse to pile on this small, congenial, literate movie for not being better. It might not be Nabokov – but it does contain a reference to Nabokov. Small mercies.
DIRECTED BY Marc Webb
STARRING Callum Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan
US 2017 Drama, 89 mins