One of the most significant films of the late ’70s/early ’80s is a little-seen sex comedy by a French filmmaker who never worked in America again after its release. It’s significant not because of the film itself, but rather because of the implosions to the Hollywood power structure that were set off by its production — seismic shifts that helped end one era of movie star power while also destroying the career of one of the most ferocious agents of the day, all in one fell swoop. All that over a goofy, leering script about a grocery store manager who ends up having an affair with the same married woman who his son is also seeing.
Part of the reason All Night Long never really worked was because it couldn’t figure out a tone, and when you’re making a film that deals with potentially difficult material about sex, a subject that American films are traditionally lousy at expressing in any serious manner, tone is everything.
When screenwriter Allan Loeb became well-known in Los Angeles because of The Black List, the scripts that launched him to prominence were celebrated precisely because they managed to evoke such a strong sense of tone while also laying out carefully-crafted implausibilities that landed with the force of gospel. His scripts could be ridiculous, but they were confidently ridiculous. They were also emotional, and they felt like they were already movies. Of those scripts, the one I personally liked the most was The Only Living Boy In New York, and not just because it used a Paul Simon song as inspiration for its title. It inverted the basic premise of Up All Night, focusing on a son who learns that his father is having an affair, leading the son to sleep with the mistress as well, and it managed to have it make sense in a way the earlier film never could.
In the time since those scripts made such a splash for their writer, the industry has moved on in many ways, and Loeb has settled into his role writing movies like Collateral Beauty, which was like someone multiplied Allan Loeb by Allan Loeb, resulting in a sort of event-level Allan Loeb that just became absurd. We’ve seen other writers nail the formula of Loeb’s early scripts, perhaps the best example being This Is Us, with Dan Fogelman having really perfected the way to build an episode around a narrative assumption, building to a reveal that also serves as an emotional bombshell. And while it sounds like I’m cynical when I describe it as a formula, I’m not. I think there’s an itch for the audience that gets scratched by that kind of storytelling, and I was pleased to see that director Marc Webb has delivered a fairly stripped-down and sincere rendition of Loeb’s script, doing it full justice after such a long, arduous trek through development.
The Only Living Boy in New York tells the story of Thomas, a young man who is wrestling with his place in the world. As he reaches the end of college, he is feeling enormous pressure to define who he’s going to be and what he’s going to do, something that’s not easy thanks to his powerful, high-profile father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), his well-intentioned but smothering mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), or the legacy the two of them have laid out for him to navigate.
Callum Turner plays Thomas, and one of the first things that distinguishes his performance is that he’s not playing a boy who’s playing at being a man, as so many of our young actors seem to be doing these days. Turner is very adult in some essential way; there’s simply a weight to him, a sense of settled integrity that feels like an important casting decision as things play out. Thomas has a complicated relationship with everyone in his life, and part of that comes from a desire to carve out a path in the world that belongs to him — one he does not inherit, and one that is not forced on him.
The movie deals with the process by which Thomas gradually comes to see both of his parents as the full, flawed human beings that they actually are. That’s it. As a result, he starts to see a picture of the person he wants to be. His journey is guided by a mysterious benefactor played by Jeff Bridges, who has so fully embraced the “coot” phase of his career that it’s hard to remember what he was like before this. Bridges has more than a passing interest in this kid, and audiences will connect the dots long before the characters onscreen do. Even so, Bridges and Turner have an easy rapport, and they earn the picture’s obvious twist with the way they play off each other. Pierce Brosnan, often stranded by the types of roles he gets to play, is good here, and as the truth is laid bare, the way he plays it is one of the main reasons it all landed for me.
When you’re playing an Allan Loeb character, you’ve got to roll with some pretty outrageous things, and how you react dictates how seriously I’m able to take things as a viewer. I hate to keep piling on Collateral Beauty, but part of why that film is impossible to swallow is because no one ever seems to acknowledge how totally barking mad everything they do is. No one behaves like a normal human being, and as a result, there are no emotional stakes to anything. They simply behave the way the movie needs them to. In The Only Living Boy In New York, things feel authentic, and so the big emotional punches that Loeb throws actually land.
Another reason I’m glad to see how confident Marc Webb handles tone here is because I feel like his Amazing Spider-Man films pulled him so far off-course as a filmmaker that it would have been easy to just vanish into big, impersonal studio movies after them. This is a very controlled, focused movie, and it’s full of strong performances.
Kate Beckinsale plays Johanna, the woman who is having the affair with Brosnan’s character, and she does a nice job of playing against expectation. As Thomas gets to know her, she’s nothing like he thought she’d be, and that forces him to reassess everyone else in his life as well. Cynthia Nixon’s been doing really strong work in movies lately, and this reminded me of her work in James White. When she breaks onscreen, it’s hard not to follow suit. Kiersey Clemons as Mimi is a strong and dynamic presence in the film, and there are plenty of other performances that pop as well.
Stuart Dryburgh’s photography captures upper-class Manhattan with a gorgeous magazine-layout sheen that is appropriate for a film about surfaces and the things they hide, and Rob Simonsen’s score is smart, spare, and never ladles on the emotion too thick.
Ultimately, the film is about how hard it is to live a completely honest life, and how important it is to try. Thomas rages against his father for deceiving his mother, but he spends all of his time with Mimi and never admits how he actually feels about her. It’s easier to spot the hypocrisy and dishonesty in others than it is to face those things in oneself, and Thomas has built a shell around himself that depends on a certain amount of denial, if only because his parents have taught him to react to the world that way. The film builds to what feels like real catharsis and not just the forced movie version of it that Loeb has fallen victim to in other scripts.
The Only Living Boy In New York is a small film, but it’s a strong film, and it finally showcases this writer in a way that makes clear what his strengths can be. Let’s see if, like his main character, he can learn and move forward from here.
Running time: 90 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic