Death Takes a Quaalude

Moonlight Mile is the worst film of the year; Igby Goes Down is the best.

Moonlight Mile: an affront to the living and the dead

Narcissistic coming-of-age stories are not exactly uncommon in movies, but I’ve rarely sat through one as eerie as Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile (Touchstone), an early entry in this year’s Terms of Endearment (1983) heart-tugger sweepstakes. Silberling is reportedly a warm guy, but as a writer and director he’s gruesomely insensitive. I’m at a loss to account for how off this film is—how a movie can seem so conscientiously earnest yet so creepily exploitive. It’s like a Christmas stocking over a crematory.

The tone goes kerflooey in the first sequence, in which Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Susan Sarandon prepare for a funeral amid ringing phones, which Hoffman dutifully answers—accepting condolences, relaying the time of the service—while Sarandon quietly fumes at her husband’s amiability. Over time, we learn that the rites are for their only daughter, that Gyllenhaal was her fiance, and that she was murdered in a local diner by a crazy man bent on exacting vengeance on his own wife. Before we’ve even gotten our bearings, Silberling goes for little laughs at the parents’ expense; and during the service, the dead girl’s best friend rubs the fiance’s shoulders in a way that’s unnervingly intimate.

We’re meant to identify with the squirmy young man, Joe, who feels self-conscious and out of place, having now been adopted by this weird couple he doesn’t know in a town that isn’t his home. A few scenes later, he goes to retrieve the unsent wedding invitations and has a meet-cute scene with Bertie, a zany postal clerk (Ellen Pompeo)—and suddenly it’s clear that MoonlightMile will be about their kooky coming-together while he’s living under the roof of his murdered fiancee’s parents and preparing to testify at the trial of her killer.

Will Joe have the strength of character to admit (on the witness stand, if necessary) that the relationship with his fiancee was troubled before she died? Will he declare his love for this other girl before she gets away? How will Joe choose between the new love of his life and his in-laws manqués?

My reaction to the above is easily stated: Yuck. It’s not the touches of comedy in a story framed by grief. It’s the combination of the maudlin and the arch. Joe is like a Woody Allen character amid the Gentiles, and in this context his eye-rolling higher consciousness is repellent. And when Silberling turns him into a fount of truth, his candor inspiring the parents to face up to their past and move on, the movie becomes an affront to the living and the dead.

Moonlight Mile is like In the Bedroom (2001) made sweet and uplifting. It’s even more vomitous than what Silberling did to Wim Wenders’ Wings ofDesire (1988), which he remade as City of Angels (1998) with Nicolas Cage as an angel who becomes fully human only when the woman he loves (Meg Ryan) celebrates their impending nuptials by bicycling into a truck. Silberling has said that this movie was partly inspired by his relationship with the parents of his girlfriend, Rebecca Schaeffer, the young actress murdered by a stalker—which makes Moonlight Mile more than an aesthetic crime. Dear In-Laws-That-Might-Have-Been: It wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Igby Goes Down: beneath the rage, vulnerability

To understand some of what’s missing, you need only check out another current Susan Sarandon movie, Igby Goes Down (MGM), which opens with a scene of breathtaking—near mythic—tastelessness. Two sons, the teenage Jason “Igby” Slocumb Jr. (Kieran Culkin) and his college-age brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), sit by the bedside of their mother (Sarandon) waiting for her to die from poison. When she persists in breathing, they hasten her death with a plastic bag. We don’t know whether they have just murdered their mother or assisted her in some sort of suicide pact. But the scene is played for grim laughs—her snoring, the lack of tears, the sons’ impatience. Yet it isn’t exploitive: By the end of the movie—a long flashback—we know why that scene happened as it did, and why it will haunt Igby for the rest of his life.

Igby (the name is from his childish mispronunciation of a Digby bear) is the biggest jerk in movies right now—and also the most vulnerable. He might even be the most likable, although maybe not if you actually met him and he called you an idiot. The movie isn’t a flip black comedy in which loss has no sting. It’s a wrenching, tumultuous, emotionally chaotic comedy—a comedy in which grief is expressed in rage. The first-time writer-director, Burr Steers, has given us a teenage hero who knows only what he hates. 

He hates his rich and narcissistic mother, and it gives him pleasure to frustrate her monumental will: He flunks out of school after school, he runs away and hides with Manhattan bohemians. He seems to blame her for the insanity of his absent dad (Bill Pullman), who shows up in his dreams like a wreck out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He hates his unctuous preppie brother, an honors student at Columbia, who seems almost incestuously in league with his mother. He hates his vastly wealthy godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), a cold snob who takes a strange interest in his upbringing. At a cocktail party at D.H.’s beach house in the Hamptons, Igby meets a young woman he might actually like, a cool misfit named Sookie (Claire Danes—all grown up and alluringly self-contained). But he’ll come close to hating her, too, when she can’t resist his brother’s moves.

There’s a long line of movies about dysfunctional kids and their heartless mothers—the modern template is Ordinary People (1980). But unlike them, Igby Goes Down doesn’t feel like the product of psychoanalysis. Its hero’s despair hasn’t been diagrammed or his rebelliousness turned into a metaphor. The movie hasn’t been designed to make his callow narcissism seem a state of grace, as it is in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Igby’s journey is haphazard and messy; the movie is built on one emotional dissonance after another. Culkin’s face is a mask of sneering sophistication, but we can see that it’s a mask; we can glimpse on occasion the face of the squalling, needy infant underneath.

Igby has grown up with people who don’t know how to express their love, and so this smart-mouth provokes them in lieu of asking for what he really needs. He gets hit, too. He gets slugged a couple of times by a therapist, which shocks him—and us. He gets cuffed by a beautiful and damaged young artist (Amanda Peet), at whose loft he’s been hiding. He gets beaten up by his godfather, who finds out Igby’s been sleeping with his mistress. And those are just the physical blows—the other ones, from his mom and his sometime girlfriend, draw even more blood. And still he goads them, needing only a response—the way this movie goads us, with its scenes that sometimes go on too long, its sudden cruelties, its great actors who hit unpleasant notes they’ve never hit on screen before.

Igby Goes Down got a reaction from me: I think it’s the movie of the year. I squirmed, I laughed a lot, I thought about how cursed this boy was by his enraged sense of entitlement. Some heroes can demonstrate their vulnerability more vividly through anger than through sweetness. Jerks have to work harder than nice guys. They have more miles to go before they sleep.