Privilege is a loaded word. There’s an accusatory note to it, a notion of unfair advantage that no one quite feels like they have.
Pragmatically speaking, I think of privilege in some area as not having to worry about it. Men don’t have to worry about striking a delicate balance of propriety and self-expression whenever they go out in public, wealthy people don’t have to worry about having to choose between mutually exclusive essentials. There are less obvious privileges, too: People in a committed relationship have a tremendous emotional privilege that mostly becomes clear in its absence, folks who live in a city have a whole dimension of planning in their lives that completely vanishes.
The Only Living Boy In New York is about a wealthy young man who lives in a city in a committed relationship. Now, living in a movie is its own privilege – your life being condensed into a few hours removes so many problems like minor illnesses and hunger or waiting around1 – but even beyond all this privilege our hero feels uncommonly privileged, because he has the privilege of the movie being completely on his side.
As fun as it is to joke, it emerges here that there’s more to director Marc Webb than a name that’s a Spider-Man pun: We have another movie where the entire thematic and narrative arc seems warped until you realize it’s just bent down towards our hero, played with another fake outer-borough accent by another late-twenties English actor who asks the audience for the life of an adult with the excuses of a teenager – both their own kind of privilege.
This “Boy” (played with an Ethan Hawkish squint by young Callum Turner) doesn’t have spider-powers, but he has rich, snooty and completely uninvolved parents, which is about as good. It lets him feel above-it-all and yet down-to-earth about living away from them in the (gasp) Lower East Side, but still attend their dinner parties and vehemently agree with unironic lines like “Don’t you miss getting mugged in Central Park?”
Just to confirm, yes, I said “agree” – this kid is never shown to be anything but dismissive of the world he lives in, spurning it in favor of some romanticized, shadowed-city-under-a-hill idea of the ‘70s and ‘80s where “New York was real, New York had soul.” This is what happens in a script by Allan Loeb, of real world Donald Kaufman joke Collateral Beauty, real world 30 Rock joke New Amsterdam,2 and (very obviously) not real world New York at all. You know how people like to say “New York was a character of its own”? New York really phones in this performance, barely plays an actual character.
All the legwork goes into glorifying not the city but Jeff Bridges, whose relaxed, growly opening narration (over City Comma State-standard mock hand drawings) is more about how great he is for his opinion on New York, than that opinion itself. Bridges plays the Boy’s neighbor, who initially approaches him offering to help with his relationship problems, but then finds the problem is just the Boy: He’s become a fairy godfather for a prince who’s complaining about the catering at the ball, so privileged his only problem with life seems to be there’s not enough bad things happening to him.
Luckily for everyone involved, something bad emerges posthaste, proving what I mean about fictional privileges. See, the Boy’s father (Pierce Brosnan, stripped of any chance to show off his charm or range) is seeing another woman: Kate Beckinsale, a character who’s never seen having any kind of career or occupation beyond “professional sexy woman”, and is named “Johanna” to cater to Jeff Bridges’ constant spouting of ‘60s song references 3 That sort of describes every female character we see: Conceived so comprehensively to hold up the Boy and Jeff Bridges that all inner life or even logic gets sacrificed. At least the Boy’s girlfriend gets to be played by Kiersey Clemons, who brings a palpable sense of only following the Boy around out of a mixture of concern and curiosity.
Both those things come natural, though, when concerning a Boy with no demands on his time and a philandering father. The Boy and his girlfriend track Johanna and the father around, theoretically as part of some sleuthing setup, but really to present a tourist leaflet of Manhattan locations you can’t afford to stay in for too long – why yes, we’re supposed to be invested in a dude having a private function at the Met museum who feels vaguely “unfulfilled”.
Bridges is along for the ride of course, as a sort of “superior back at headquarters” figure for the gripping mission of finding something for the Boy to do with his goddamn time. Out of basically nowhere he introduces the idea that the Boy should try to seduce Johanna himself, getting the Boy to agree by highlighting his privilege – he can do anything he wants, after all, why not put “his father’s mistress” on the list? Actually there are some great reasons why not, that the movie very carefully never brings up as if we’ll take it as a given, the same way we take the Force and spaceships in a Star Wars movie.
Speaking of Star Wars, this weird Oedipal thing only gets weirder and more Oedipal, when Johanna falls for the Boy after maybe an hour of total time together. There’s a point the movie keeps returning to, of highbrow culture in general and classic literature in particular (Nabokov’s formalist classic Pale Fire gets a mention that never goes anywhere, the first shot of the movie is the exact New Yorker cover people who read the magazine would expect). We see that it’s sort of the Boy’s own doing, in a sequence that, spoilers be damned, deserves to be recounted in its entirety.
See, during one of many passionate nights with Johanna, the pair are getting intimate in her apartment, The Boy going both over- and under-the-clothes as he talks about himself, like the exact opposite of a psychiatrist. Johanna joins in on the rundown of his many accomplishments, saying she heard about his hugely overachieving academic career from his father, saying as the couple embrace how proud The Boy’s father is of him.
The Boy is of course unsatisfied with all that acclaim and success, and the full scholarship that he obviously didn’t need: He wanted to be a writer, you see, but when he presented his work to his father asking for frankness, frankness is what he got.
“I’d love to read your writing”, says the woman he’s actively on third base with. We cut to even higher praise: Jeff Bridges, revealed in the previous scene to be a reclusive best-selling author, being enthusiastic and happy when he reads the work, which the Boy proudly zeroes in on as a “professional opinion”, before it comes out the father is a failed writer himself trying to protect his son.
This is all real, this is all stuff that happens in the movie and is presented 100% seriously. What else is there to talk about, really? The Only Living Boy In New York is a movie where that happens – not even at the end of the movie, mind, but around the middle. On pure consumer reportage terms, I’ll leave it up to you as to whether Webb’s stylish direction and Bridges being clean-shaven is enough to carry you through a story about people so privileged that these are the problems they face.
I’m a lifelong New Yorker, as you could probably tell by now. I’m a white guy, almost definitely younger than this so-called “boy”. I come from a pretty highbrow family immersed in the local culture of the 60s and 70s and 80s; not really rich but not bad off by any means. Speaking as someone who runs so deep this way I was able to summon genuine emotion and empathy for the kid in The goddamn Dark Tower because he took a subway at one point, I have absolutely no interest in this man who pretends to be a boy.
- I’m looking at you, character who hails a cab in the pouring rain after a literal heartbeat
- Seriously, look that TV show up, it’s the most TV show-y premise I might ever have encountered, the Fox promo that aired during The Simpsons burned into my brain.
- I guess this isn’t the kind of movie where she would be called “April”, as in “Come She Will”.