There is a better, more touching movie hidden somewhere inside The Only Living Boy in New York, and you can often see it creeping in around the edges. It’s not to be found in the somewhat empty coming-of-age narrative at the film’s center, which follows Thomas (Callum Turner), a precocious, snarky and (of course) melancholy recent college grad having trouble deciding what to do with his life. The offspring of a publishing executive father (Pierce Brosnan) and a neurotic artist mother (Cynthia Nixon), Thomas likes to mope about how New York isn’t New York anymore, how everything today has lost its edge. (He’s fond of saying, “New York’s most vibrant neighborhood right now is Philadelphia.”)
At least some of the young man’s bitterness, however, comes from the fact that he’s been rebuked by his beautiful best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), with whom he once had a late-night hookup. For her, Thomas is “like the new New York … No danger, no deliverance.” Mimi can see through his emptiness.
Can the film, though? Thomas is, in a word, insufferable, and as long as the movie keeps him at its center, you may find yourself struggling to care about anything he does. Some help, however, is on the way. Moving into his new apartment, Thomas meets a mysteriously chatty, hard-drinking neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges) who begins schooling him in the ways of life and love. The relationship is intriguing — Bridges does a lot of the heavy lifting here — and we may start asking questions about just who or what W.F. is, and how he found Thomas in the first place. Meanwhile, Thomas also discovers that his father is having an affair with one of his employees, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and in turn becomes obsessed with her.
Thomas’ journey — his pursuit of Johanna, his sessions with W.F., his desire to understand what the adults around him are up to — comes across more as a narrative contrivance than a genuine quest for knowledge. But as his investigations and obsessions turn toward his own family, what he actually discovers is unexpectedly powerful. Slowly, The Only Living Boy becomes the opposite of a coming-of-age tale: a film about the mysterious sadness of adults, and the uncontainable power of the past. This is at least partly by design: Thomas’ attitudes and postures do get interrogated and undercut. But the filmmakers still clearly expect us to like this kid, and it’s hard to feel anything for a character who remains largely a cipher.
It helps, however, that much of the supporting cast is excellent — particularly Bridges, whose character slowly transforms from gruff know-it-all to someone far more vulnerable and human. In his big scene, toward the end, W.F. finally starts to make real eye contact with Thomas, and the results are breathtaking. Enough even to make you wonder if that title is meant to be ironic: The boy is but a shell; it’s the men and women around him who truly come to life in this chaotic, awkward and sporadically moving film.