The troubled, bespectacled title character in The Only Living Boy in New York is Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), the twenty-something scion of Ethan Webb (Pierce Brosnan), a wealthy New York publishing executive. Thomas lives on the Lower East Side, the farthest possible place from his father and mother, Judith (Cynthia Nixon). Thomas once dreamed of being a writer, but now he is aimless, much to his father’s chagrin.
One day, Thomas meets W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges) in his apartment building and they become friendly. Thomas tells W.F. about his romantic troubles with his would-be girlfriend, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), and W.F. provides life lessons and “sage neighborly advice.”
But Thomas’s world changes when he spies his father canoodling with Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). He worries that his father’s affair will devastate his fragile mother.
The Only Living Boy in New York takes a strange, and perhaps contrived plot turn when Thomas meets Johanna, and their banter leads to them eventually having sex. More than once. Why Johanna does this may be more for the sake of the plot than any plausible reason, like love, or attraction. The film plays out the consequences and repercussions of this indiscretion.
Rather than blame the characters for acting foolishly, blame the writer Allan Loeb (of Collateral Beauty infamy), who peppers his script with would-be witty quips, like “New York’s most vibrant neighborhood is Philadelphia,” a line so mediocre it’s used twice. Loeb makes most of Johanna’s dialogue wretched, but because Kate Beckinsale is beautiful, and speaks a lovely British accent, it doesn’t sound quite so awful. (But it is). Loeb gives a drunken speech to a relative at a wedding that has some nice nuggets of truth buried within it, to show there are ideas about relationships in the film. However, Loeb tends to rely on the occasional too-clever voice over by W.F. to make salient points. If viewers cringe during the film’s opening sequence — where W.F. pontificates about urban decay and junkies moving out to the suburbs — it is wise to head out, because The Only Living Boy in New York will becomes like nails on a chalkboard with its inane urbanity.
The film is full of moneyed white privilege that while certainly representational of the Upper West Side intellectuals, makes it somewhat hard to care about the characters and their relationship troubles. To the film’s credit, there is a plot twist, however contrived, that most viewers won’t see coming. Thought they might, given the number of clues the film drops over its brief running time.
The Only Living Boy in New York really sinks or swims on the charisma of its leading man, and unfortunately, Callum Turner doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. He is not especially likable, or ingratiating. He makes bad decisions, big and small, that hurt people. He deserves a come-uppance that never really comes. In support, Bridges is wonderful, and the only reason to se the film. He chews the scenery like the cigar he chomps on, getting into a grizzled character one person describes as “like an unmade bed.”
In support, Brosnan and Nixon are given thankless roles, and Clemons is lovely. Her character talks about going off to Croatia. Many viewers would probably prefer the film followed her there than spend any (more) time with Thomas in New York.
The Only Living Boy in New York opens up in New York’s most vibrant neighborhood today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.