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'The Only Living Boy In New York': A Callow, Shallow Writer Makes Good

Kiersey Clemons and Callum Turner in <em>The Only Living Boy in New York.</em>
Niko Tavernise
Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Kiersey Clemons and Callum Turner in The Only Living Boy in New York.

Doffing a hasty prefatory cap to the crime stats and overflowing garbage of 1970s New York, Marc Webb's The Only Living Boy in New York soon withdraws to more glam pastures within. By which Webb and screenwriter Allan Loeb mean the amber-lit, opulent interiors where Manhattan's writers and artists gather to kvetch and preen. Not much writing or arting goes on here, but it is clear that these are creative types because they are extremely attractive and throw dinner parties where they gesture prettily with slender-stemmed wine glasses while drily quipping.

At one such soiree fronted by happening couple Ethan and Judith (Pierce Brosnan and Cynthia Nixon, silver and bronze), clever banter sails around the table like flying saucers. Judith laughs proudly at a particularly pithy sally produced by her son Tom, also an aspiring writer. Tom, the only living boy, etc., is having issues even though he is played by Callum Turner, who resembles Eddie Redmayne cross-bred with a young Richard Gere wearing the serious-minded spectacles that people of intellect are known to do, whether writers or not.

Tom's dad doesn't want him writing because — and he should know — there's no security in it. His mom is okay with it, however, and he's got an encouraging sort-of girlfriend (Kiersey Clemons) and a Lower East Side walkup that ought to be chintzy enough to get anyone's creative juices going. Alas, Tom is convinced he has no life and therefore no material. Until, that is, he meets a suspiciously attentive mystery gent who lives across the hall and who provides the movie's world-weary voiceover, just in case the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack doesn't do the job. And really, who wouldn't want to be Jeff Bridges' new BFF, even though his paint-peeled apartment lacks a stick of furniture and he is, for now, known only by his initials — W.F. — and he's drunk or disappeared much of the time?

Still, W.F. has an undeniable point when he observes, in the sexy Bridges mumble we all adore, that Tom's life fairly teems with serviceable psychodrama. For starters, he's hitting the sack with Someone He Shouldn't (Kate Beckinsale, in full siren gear) and creating a domestic mess even Mrs. Robinson might balk at. The callow youth steams ahead regardless, fully confident that he understands the ways of the world. Begging to differ, W.F. offers himself as the smoking gun of young Tom's future as well as his agent of change. Where all this is going, alas, becomes crystal clear well before half time due to much nodding and winking from plot, dialogue, and further injections of Simon and Garfunkel.

The Only Living Boy in New York began life years ago as the breakthrough first screenplay of Loeb, whose credits include a sequel to Oliver Stone's Wall Street and the critically trounced Will Smith movie, Collateral Beauty, about which the best that was said was that it meant well. The best I can say for The Only Living Boy is that it doesn't have a cynical bone in its body either. And if you liked Webb's enormously popular but, to this critic's mind, horribly pandering (500 Days) of Summer, you'll probably enjoy this too.

As a coming-of-age parable, though, Tom's rite of passage indulges to the full the adolescent fantasy that just about all the people in his young life have put their lives and longings on hold — for decades! — for his sake alone. At the close, with all cats safely out of bags and truth ascendant, these noble self-sacrifiers — let us call them Satellites of Tom — instantly take up their long-delayed destinies as if several decades had not run away with their dreams. Everyone's good!

Unlike most of us who grow up to realize that the world does not revolve around us, young Tom discovers that, give or take an early publisher's rejection, it does. Call him a lucky fellow if you like. For my money his troubles begin right here — which, come to think of it, would make a really interesting movie.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.