Show, Don't Tell

The great god of laughter, his sides forever split, is not pleased by black comedies, for the simple reason that they tend not to be very funny. The comedy of blackness is usually a kind of local anesthetic, something frozen, producing not humor but a dead-skinned tolerance for the horrible; and there is no situation so ghastly that it cannot be made worse by a bad joke.

In the opening scene of Burr Steers' debut Igby Goes Down, two well-dressed young men -- one slouched, one poised -- are sitting on their mother's deathbed. They are waiting for her to expire and they are getting restless. She's unconscious, but she won't go. The breath drains from her body in long, quavering snores -- each one a lament, a recessional, an adieu -- but she won't go. The boys consult their watches, swear peevishly and curse their mother's constitution ("[Too much] fucking tennis!"), but still she won't go. So they decide to speed things up by putting a plastic bag over her head. Ha ha! Or, rather, not. And that's because, despite the best efforts of our edgy young filmmakers, the inhuman will always be unamusing.

Luckily for us, the first scene of Igby Goes Down is the worst. Other unamusing things follow -- lines such as "If I'm immature, you're prenatal!" and "Not going to New Jersey isn't procrastination, it's common sense." (It is only from the slight intellectual ache left behind by these lines that one recognizes them as witticisms.) But let's be fair: Writer/director Steers, pressed as he might be by the need to show us what a smarty-pants he is, is only being faithful to his characters, specifically to his lead character, Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr. (played by Kieran Culkin). Igby -- younger brother, self-saboteur, private-school runaway, failed military cadet, great disappointment to everyone -- fends off the world with his wit; and if the jokes are bad, it's because the world is increasingly getting the better of him.

Morbidly privileged and totally unloved, Igby is going down -- down for the count, down through the levels of society and down, finally, into knowledge, which lies at the bottom of things. His mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), is a sort of snow queen of disgust, spitting at her family while coddling her own vices. (Her plentiful pills are her "peppies"; when getting her wineglass re-refilled, she asks for "a little baby portion.") His father, Jason (Bill Pullman), had a terrifying mental breakdown when Igby was a boy, and is now institutionalized. And his older brother, Oliver (Ryan Philippe), is -- worst of all -- a success, heading off to Columbia to master economics. Not really wanting to do anything at all -- anywhere, at any time -- Igby finds that plans are being made for him: He is bounced from private school to military school to some sort of rehab before going on the lam in Manhattan, where he sells his heirlooms on the street and falls with relief into dubious company.

Culkin as Igby gives a strange, bloodless performance. For lack of a better term, let's call him "evasive," which seems to fit the bill. The actors around him are, more obviously, doing great work. Amanda Peet as Rachel the junkie choreographer -- Igby's hostess for a spell -- is particularly ferocious, glaring green-eyed out of ash pits of kohl, tottering about, a victim equally of high heels and a drug-perturbed inner ear. She fairly hums with Manhattanite tension; even nodding out on the toilet, she never slackens. Jeff Goldblum is also on display here -- in full plumage as it were -- as Igby's godfather, the money monster D.H. Baines. D.H. is a rich beast, and Goldblum revels in him. He glitters, he unnerves, he has a python-like heaviness of limb and he gets a lot of mileage out of his special Goldblum time gaps, his caesuras, as in "Your mother's in the (!!!) hospital," or "This is Rachel. She's the (!!!) choreographer I was telling you about." These tiny glitches, during which his eyes bulge slightly or slip to the side, give him total control over the rhythm of the scene, as if he has his finger on the pause button. And Pullman -- what an actor. In one wordless segment, Igby visits the Maryland institution where his father is being cared for. The senior Slocumb is catatonic, but -- slack-mouthed, slot-eyed, bed-headed and adrift in his hospital chair -- he nonetheless communicates an acknowledgement of his son's presence that is so tender it feels like gratitude.

At moments like this it's obvious that Steers knows what he's doing; he just can't stop writing. Some of the dialogue is spot-on: Delivering drugs door-to-door, Igby runs into his old art teacher (Cynthia Nixon), who says brightly, "So, this is what you're up to!" -- and then reminds him how he used to call her "Miss Piggy." But when Igby takes up with an unlikely girl named Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), the air fills immediately with atrocious, zinger-driven banter: "You call your mother Mimi?" "Medea was taken," and so on. Of course, this is the talk of two precocious, spikily cerebral teenagers; but while they are talking it is also, for better or worse, the script.

Words, words, words -- there's the script and then there's the movie, and the good news is that Igby Goes Down has a filmic life of its own. The sense of place is acute: New York City with its rumbling spires and its clattering lofts and its dogged little green patches. Two schoolgirls play violent field hockey under derelict-looking trees and end up wrestling on the ground, swearing at each other. And the smell is genuine autumn -- seasonal affective disorder, sun famine, the longing of dysthymic East Coasters for some good, clean UV rays. "I'm no good in the winter," his father tells him. "These gray days ... so sad." Igby thinks he might want to go to California, the Sunshine State. ("Actually," his brother tells him, speaking, as usual, as if polishing an egg in the back of his throat, "Florida is the Sunshine State.")

Another motif, equally effective, is numbness, sealed-offness, people suffering behind plastic or glass. Igby's father, in a scene of pure Lynchian horror, goes to screaming pieces in a shower stall, wounding himself on broken glass from the door. The disastrous Rachel, now hopelessly addicted, falls drugged into an empty bathtub but rears up suddenly against the clear plastic shower curtain, gasping, "Igby! Your poor mother!" And of course there's Mimi, suffocated, making a girlish O-mouth of amazement with the plastic bag over her head. This is the language of image, and it works on a far deeper level than the snappy one-liners. Mastering this, Burr Steers -- black comedian or not -- will become a director that we have no choice but to take seriously.