The Only Living Boy In New York is quite a surprise. Everything about the ad campaign and the preview trailers for this movie seem to be selling it as a sort of Millennial version of The Graduate—a young man at loose ends, on the threshold of his life, enters into a messy relationship with a seductive older woman connected to the family through his father. The chief difference being (as clearly laid out in the trailer) that the woman here is his father’s mistress, not the wife of a business partner.
The song that gives this movie its title, vintage Simon and Garfunkel, also references the ambience of the classic Mike Nichols movie. But it turns out there’s a perfectly valid reason for using this song, beyond a random attempt to create a link to its famous predecessor. This smart, engaging film, written by Allan Loeb and skillfully directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), tells its own story, from a completely fresh perspective. The story intrigues and surprises, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in the way everything eventually falls into place. Best of all is a big, plummy role for Jeff Bridges, as sort of an irascible old Yoda, mentoring the boy in the school of life.
Callum Turner has a wry, slightly gauche appeal as Thomas Webb, a twentysomething a couple of years out of college who doesn’t know what to do with his life. His father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), who once had literary aspirations, is the big cheese at a literary publishing house in New York City. Thomas’ “fragile” mom, Judith (Cynthia Nixon), hosts lavish dinner parties for writers, artists, and other glitterati. Thomas loves his parents, but he’s moved to a cheap, walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side to nurture his own fledgling writing ambitions in secret.
Stopping in the lobby one afternoon, Thomas meets new tenant W. F. (Bridges). Slightly cantankerous, and a bit of a lush, W. F. is easy to talk to; with his poet’s soul and an acerbic viewpoint, he’s a willing sounding-board to whom Thomas is soon telling all his problems. Most of these involve a girl named Mimi (vivacious Kiersey Clemons), who works in Thomas’ favorite bookstore. They spent one night together, but now they’re just friends; she has a boyfriend and is about to leave for Croatia.
At a restaurant one night, Thomas and Mimi spy Ethan tucked away in a private booth, canoodling with a glamorous stranger, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). After witnessing a couple of more encounters, and finding himself unable to confront his father, Thomas instead starts stalking Johanna. She knows exactly who he is (his father keeps Thomas’ photo on his desk), and Thomas’ initial desire to protect his mother’s feelings—and Johanna’s instinct to dismiss his innocent unworldliness, soon escalate into something more.
Bridges’ voice narrates much of this story. It’s a little jarring at first that this character, observing the action from the outside, presumes to tell us what Thomas and other characters are thinking and feeling. But there’s a turning point later on when it all suddenly makes sense. Needless to say, this does not turn out to be a story about Thomas and Johanna, but as the narrative keeps expanding, what seems like a simple coming-of-age tale evolves into something much more cleverly put together and compelling.
You may guess part of the mysterious history linking these characters before all is revealed, but that shouldn’t interfere with the pleasure of watching it play out. Sure, there are some iffy motivations along the way, viewed in retrospect. But the sympathy extended to each character (even the initially off-putting Ethan) helps keep us invested, and Bridges is in fine form, both impish and heartfelt. And the percolating rhythms of city life provide an expressive counterpoint to this very human tale.
THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK
***1/2 (out of four)
With Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, and Pierce Brosnan. A Roadside Attractions release. Written by Allan Loeb. Directed by Marc Webb. Rated R. 88 minutes.