The Only Living Boy in New York could, perhaps, be the most pretentiously-titled release of 2017. Directed by Marc Webb, the creative mind behind indie darling (500) Days of Summer and the critically-divisive Amazing Spider-Man duology, this tale of sexual intrigue and coming-of-age seems to play precisely to Webb’s strengths – crafting compelling characters and telling quirky, unexpectedly heart-stirring stories. However, after the relatively lukewarm reception met by April’s Gifted and, now, the colossal misstep of The Only Living Boy, it is unfortunately possible that the success of 2009’s (500) Days may have been the exception and not the rule. There is almost nothing to be found within this entirely forgettable movie except for missed potential and wasted opportunities.
Thomas Webb, a twenty-something college graduate living in downtown New York City, is disillusioned with the commercialization and franchising of his beloved metropolis. Former days of artistic expression and individualism have been replaced with cold, lifeless shadows of past glory. In other words, to quote a mantra frequently repeated throughout The Only Living Boy in New York, the city “has lost its soul.” When Webb discovers that his father, Ethan, a wealthy and respected book publisher, is in the midst of an affair with Johanna, a mysterious freelance writer, Thomas finds himself caught up in a twisted love pentagram involving himself, his father, his mother, Johanna, and Mimi, the longtime object of Thomas’ affection.
The primary problem with this film is wrapped up in its entire tone and makeup. There is a toxic sense of privilege that pervades every scene of Thomas’ adventures through the streets of New York City. Dramatic stakes are almost disgustingly minimal, as conflicts range from whether or not Thomas should accept a Junior Editor position at his father’s lucrative publishing house or whether or not Thomas should sleep with one stunning woman or another equally-stunning woman. For a very specific demographic of moviegoers, these problems might sound shocking and intriguing. However, for most sitting in the seats of an average theater, the awkward attempts at plot found here will just seem ludicrously vain. Combine this with the fact that Callum Turner’s Thomas Webb is entirely unlikable as a protagonist and you will find a story that exists so far removed from any point of emotional reference to the general public that The Only Living Boy is practically damned to failure.
However, even when viewed solely in regards to its basic cinematic elements, Webb’s creation is a disaster. Allan Loeb, the screenwriter behind this year’s The Space Between Us and last year’s Collateral Beauty proves that his writing skills have not improved by even the smallest degree. The best way to describe the dialogue in The Only Living Boy is as an adult version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. This time, instead of a life-threatening illness driving the plot behind the words spoken, the inciting incident of this awkwardly-penned script is sleeping with your father’s mistress. Furthermore, instead of immature teenagers talking in unrealistic, horridly “elevated” dialogue, supposedly mature and successful adults attempt to bring this contrived melodrama to life. The only real result of this awful writing is a complete lack of emotional depth or weight. All that being said, The Only Living Boy in New York boasts one of the worst screenplays of 2017.
As for its aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof), the camerawork in this 88-minute movie seems to be more fitting of a Lifetime Original than a theatrical release. Shots of the beautiful New York City streets are devoid of any real charm as every moment feels sanitized and bleached of any actual life. And, in its portrayal of female characters, The Only Living Boy shows off an uncomfortable voyeuristic objectifying lens that takes concepts of Male Gaze to frustrating new levels. Constant voiceover preaches to you with the subtlety of a crashing semi-truck. Poorly planned pacing sacrifices any sense of build for the sake of long, vaguely-philosophical meandering straight out of a middle schooler’s poetry journal. It is not an exaggeration to say that nothing lands. I would be hard-pressed to find a single scene that works on even an adequate level.
Performances are bland. Thomas Webb’s lines, in the hands of a more-talented actor (Ansel Elgort or Miles Teller both come to mind), could have worked to some degree, but Callum Turner’s wooden, directionless delivery completely disappoints. Pierce Brosnan’s natural charm and charisma work well for him even in the worst of his efforts, but this is much more on par with Mamma Mia! than with 007 when ranking his filmography. Kate Beckinsale overacts and underdelivers. Even Jeff Bridges, who both narrates and takes on the role of primary supporting character (in a role that cannot be discussed much without entering spoiler territory), seems completely uninterested in his own performance.
The final, troubling flaw in The Only Living Boy in New York comes back, to some degree, to scripting. However, it is also a more all-encompassing issue that rears its ugly head throughout. The treatment of women in this narrative is more misogynistic than almost anything I have seen this year. Two primary female characters are portrayed as overly-emotional, overly-sexualized beings who exist only to bring down the power and strength of men. Men, on the other hand, are manipulative and abusive (in a pitiful “nice guy” sort of way), epitomizing the perverse predatory side of fragile masculinity. Sexist gender tropes can exist within a film without causing art to be dangerous. The gender politics within this story cross the line into being legitimately abusive.
The more that I think about this disappointing misstep of a movie, the more that I find to dislike. In general, the indie arthouse scene, complete with its convoluted storytelling, pretentious dialogue, and ridiculous notions of plot, is home for my favorite cinematic experiences. However, The Only Living Boy in New York is, almost without compare, one of the worst of the year so far. A cast this good combined with a director this talented should not put out a flop this atrocious. Do not see this flick. Do not waste your time (and, especially, you’re money), even if you are a fan of Webb’s work. Go back and rewatch (500) Days or catch up on Gifted. You will not regret spending your time on a more deserving film.
Jonathan’s Score: 1.5/10