Igby Goes Down
starring Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Philippe
4 stars

In the spirit of holiday counter-programming we have Igby Goes Down, an anti-family movie. Take warning; hearts will not be warmed, sins will not be forgiven, and people will be jerks right to the end.

It's a little hard to figure out how to recommend Igby Goes Down. When you describe it -- a black ensemble comedy about an almost impossibly cynical and sarcastic family spraying contempt at each other like an all-day contempt car wash-- it sounds like a movie you wouldn't want to see. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of rich arrogant East Coast snobs for two hours?

And yet, they're so *good* at being snobs, at being jerks. In the opening scene, mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) slowly gasps to death on her bed as her two sons, Igby (Keiran Culkin) and Ollie (Ryan Philippe) impatiently wait for her to die, fret about how the drugs won't even touch her system because she's such a freak of a pill-popper anyway, and eventually resort to wrapping her head in a plastic bag. 

With that first scene, the movie gives itself license for all the bad behavior to follow, of which there is plenty. It's hard to make unlikable characters interesting, but Igby somehow hits just the right tone of sly humor, just the right hint of cartoonish sincerity. The dialogue is sharp, sharp like smart and sharp like cutting. There's a snarky, anti-sentimental New York impatience with bullshit; characters spot their opponents' weak points and let fly. These people are jerks, but they're just so smart and up-front about it, firing off little jabs of dialogue, that you can't help but be interested.

The story centers around Culkin's Igby, the disappointing son whose smart mouth keeps him bouncing from school to school under the withering glare of his mother. His father (Bill Pullman) is a pill-throwing head case in an institution, and his brother (Phillippe) is a super-pompous snot attending Columbia. As if that wasn't bad enough, Jeff Goldblum is in there too as D.H., Igby's rich godfather and sleazy psuedo-head of the house. 

Tired of the casual hypocrisy of his family, Igby splits and crashes at one of D.H.'s lofts in New York, currently occupied by Amanda Peet as the artist-cum-heroin-addict D.H. has been banging on the side. While hanging out and avoiding his mother, Igby gets involved with Claire Danes as Sookie, a semi-snarky catering assistant. What follows isn't a plot so much as an succession of collisions between various assholes and assholettes.

Igby Goes Down is a character show, with a bunch of great actors all grooving on the same cynical witty tone and the thrill of cutting loose. Culkin grounds the movie in Igby, a lippy punk with a mean streak who you can't help but like because, well, he tells it like it is. Susan Sarandon's Mimi is a strung-out freak who's also a scary, steely, know-it-all authority, always ready with wit and energy to rain disapproval on her son. Ryan Phillippe, meanwhile, is rapidly cementing his career as being the only guy to go to when you need a character to be absolutely contemptible. He's a machine, the kind of towering asshole who's never gonna get his comeuppance. And then there's Goldblum who gobbles up like a roast chicken the role of D.H. as an unctuous, faux-friendly chuckling bastard.

No, these aren't nice people. But watching them crash into each other with all their sarcastic, cynical armor, and seeing them take damage even as their sarcasm and cynicism never wavers, makes for a pretty satisfying anti-Christmas tonic. Ho ho ho!