September 6, 2002 
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A still from Igby Goes Down
Salinger revisited
Igby Goes Down is a modern day Catcher In The Rye

Jeet Thayil

In 1951, the short story writer J D Salinger published his first, and only, novel, The Catcher In The Rye. In the decades that followed its publication the book turned up in the unlikeliest places. Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy when he shot John Lennon in 1980. The book still sells some 2,50,000 copies annually even though Salinger refuses interviews and does not allow his pictures to be used.

The Catcher In The Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old who has been thrown out of every school he has attended. He runs away to New York, hides out in a hotel, drinks too much, and has a nervous breakdown. Igby Goes Down has a similar plotline, though Igby is into drugs rather than alcohol and he manages to avoid the rigors of psychiatric incarceration.

Of course Igby is only the latest in a long line of books and movies that seem to hinge on a Salingeresque universe. Most recently: The Royal Tanenbaums (with its precocious children and dysfunctional family), and The Good Girl (with a character who has renamed himself Holden).

A still from Igby Goes Down Burr Steers, a nephew of Gore Vidal and scion of old American money, is the film's writer and director. It is his first movie but it as assured as a debut can be. Steers has managed to imbue Igby Goes Down with the sort of perspective only lifelong immersion in a WASP milieu can provide. His brother, painter Hugh Steers, died of AIDS and that story is one of many that drives the film's strangely compelling tragic-comic humour.

Igby (Kieran Culkin) is sent to a military academy by his mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon). Mother's little helpers, a small battalion of pills, make her unpredictable and often downright nasty. Daddy (Bill Pullman) is the movie's only nice guy. And look what happens to him: he ends up catatonic and schizophrenic.

Meanwhile, daddy's fatherly duties are carried out by Igby's older brother (Oliver) Ryan Phillippe and his godfather D H Banes(Jeff Goldblum). Oliver works for DH, who is not a nice man but has a knack for making money. D H may be more than Igby's godfather.

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Igby, on the lam in Manhattan, ends up living in a loft rented by DH's mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet), who has a heroin habit among other more conventional hungers. Igby is befriended by Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes) and finds himself competing with Oliver for Sookie's favours.

The movie follows Igby from Soho loft to downtown drug den to Hamptons beach party to the rooftops and alleyways. He is beaten up by big men, small women, and bearded psychiatrists. These figures only administer to Igby the punishment he so cleary want to give himself. Despite his sarcastic self-indulgence and druggy demeanour, the viewer ends up on Igby's side. He is a rebel and outsider after all, so which Catcher In The Rye lover would not?

The movie belongs to Culkin and Sarandon. Culkin is a wathcable young actor who manages to keep a core of vulnerability through every betrayal and spiteful, whiny tantrum. Count on it: we will be seeing more of him.

As a mean, pill-popping, breakfast-puking mom, Sarandon is more believable than as the sweeter-than-thou characters she normally plays. She even brings a kind of gritty dignity to the role. Following an assisted suicide, or matricide (depending which way you look at it), Igby is finally able to tell her he is sorry, but only after beating up her corpse. Then he holds his mother and curls up to sleep.

Peet is surprisingly good as the heroine chick with the heroin chic. She nods out on a toilet seat and such is the level of her character's vanity that even then she is wondering if a former lover misses her. Sometimes, behind the clouds of opiate intoxication that color her eyes, the viewer may catch a glimpse of self-knowledge.

Don't get the wrong idea. Despite the drugs overdoses, violence, suicide, insanity, promiscuity and dysfunction, this is an upbeat movie. Steers has a sure touch for a first-time director. He is able to lighten the darkest material.

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