Igby Goes Down

As “Igby Goes Down” ended, I said to my friend, “What a good movie.” My friend replied, “What a depressing movie.”

We’re both right. For me, the film’s merits — fine performances, sparkling dialogue, believable pathos — make up for its overriding dreariness. This may not hold true for others, though, and if a film that begins with two brothers trying to kill their mother seems too dark for you, no one will think less of you for skipping it.

The comedy is dark, and the subject matter is the closest thing to an adaptation of “Catcher in the Rye” that we’ve seen — and “Catcher in the Rye” is not a cheerful book.

It’s not that Igby, the 18-year-old protagonist of the film, encounters grief, tragedy or hardship in any great measure. In fact, it’s the opposite: He’s a wealthy, spoiled Manhattan who has never had to deal with anything difficult, whose apathy has gotten him kicked out of a succession of private schools.

What makes the film dismal — what made my friend call it depressing — is that Igby, like Holden Caulfield before him, is a pessimist who believes he is a realist. He states in a cavalier manner how he “hates” all sorts of things, ranging from hypocrisy to any number of specific people.

But for a dismal film, “Igby Goes Down,” by first time writer/director Burr Steers, is often remarkably funny. Most of the major characters are smart and snarky, and the dialogue is often pricelessly sharp.

Igby is played with surprising depth and insight by Kieran Culkin; here is a kid who understands his character and can play him without overdoing him. In the course of the film, Igby gets smacked or punched by nearly everyone: His domineering mother (Susan Sarandon), his pretentious older brother (Ryan Phillippe), his godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), and various women (Claire Danes and Amanda Peet being the principal two).

By turns entertaining, thoughtful and tragic, “Igby Goes Down” uses bright colors to paint an unpleasant picture. But there is hope for Igby’s future, and it’s hard to resist the sardonic glee with which the story is told.

B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some fairly strong sexuality, some drug use.)