The Only Living Boy in New York: Another Nice Guy to Avoid, by David Bax
Two young New Yorkers peer over a concrete wall, waiting for the protagonist’s father to emerge from his workplace in order to catch him having an affair. This is one of the defining scenes and promotional images from Gillian Robespierre’s Landline. It’s also—coincidentally, of course—a moment from Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York. The two films have little in common otherwise but, through no fault of Webb’s, the comparison is likely to be made and also likely to not do Only Living Boy any favors. Whereas Robespierre’s film is youthful in its semiautobiographical details, Webb’s, with its screenplay by Allan Loeb (this year’s The Space Between Us), is just plain juvenile.
Callum Turner plays the boy, Thomas, a college grad who just manages to scrape by on tutoring gigs and the fact that his wealthy father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), owns a successful publishing house. Thomas wants to be a writer himself but is strongly discouraged by Ethan, who has been witness to far too many failed novelists, himself included. Meanwhile, Thomas is trying in vain to turn his friendship with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons from Dope and Neighbors 2) into something less platonic, stalking Ethan’s mistress (Kate Beckinsale) and confabulating with the haggard, old drunk who’s just moved into his building, played as crusty-but-benign by Jeff Bridges (the soft, hackneyed romanticisation of alcoholism is low on the list of Only Living Boy’s offenses but deserves to be called out nonetheless). Rounding out the cast of wasted heavy hitters is the great Cynthia Nixon, as well as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn, Debi Mazar and Bill Camp.
I won’t give away the plot twist. But don’t think for a second that it’s a spoiler to even mention that there is one. That’s because the entire story is reverse-engineered from the reveal. Every character talks and behaves as if their future is predetermined, following no logic except that of the narrative. Of course, it all is predetermined—this is a work of fiction. But such stories generally aren’t so plain about their own architecture and for good reason. There’s little to no dramatic tension when everyone already seems to understand where this is going.
Thomas is so clearly a surrogate for Webb, Loeb and any other men on the filmmaking team who want to throw themselves a pity party and imagine themselves bedding gorgeous women that the title becomes a risible joke. That anyone as commonplace as an upper middle class, white, male, liberal proselyte of the New York literati would be anything close to unique is navel-gazing nonsense.
Even more deplorable than the boring lead’s bullshit self-aggrandizement is Only Living Boy’s persistent misogyny. The film is generally uninterested in the psychology of any of its female characters, instead focusing only on the effect they have on the male ones. Beckinsale and Clemons’ characters, in particular, play as a Men’s Rights Activist’s fabrication of beautiful women who have the men in their lives wrapped around their fingers, playing them as pieces in a game in which only the ladies are playing and winning. The film is perhaps kindest to Nixon’s character, long-suffering and jilted, but that’s really just pulling from another bin of lazy stereotypes.
That The Only Living Boy in New York is uninspired and programmatic is reason to skip it. But the fact that it’s also a smug serving of “nice guy” wish fulfillment is reason to actively warn others away.