’Igby Goes Down’ with a spoonful of sugar

Hey, ever wonder what happened to Macaulay Culkin, that wonderful little mite who made us keel over as he threw paint cans at burglars in “Home Alone” and its Big Apple sequel? No, me neither, though apparently he’s now dating Natalie Portman. It seems the Culkin family is still in high demand, because Burr Steers’ “Igby Goes Down” features two of them: Kieran Culkin playing the present-day Igby, and Rory Culkin playing 10-year old Igby in the oh-so-important flashback scenes where we learn why Igby is what he is today, blah blah blah. Will they suffer the same fate as their older brother? Who cares?

Only Kieran’s performance is of any importance – a contemporary Holden Caulfield who escapes from boarding school to live on the lam in New York – and is quite compelling.

After being expelled from a parochial school, Igby is sent by his overbearing, controlling mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) to military school. His dad (Bill Pullman) appears only in flashback sequences, because in the present day sequences, he has been committed for schizophrenia.

After managing to get expelled from that, Igby spends his summer in New York working for his godfather (Jeff Goldblum, straight from the bottom of the “where are they now?” pile), and meeting such interesting characters as the godfather’s heroin-addicted mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet) and her artist friend Russel (Jared Harris). When it’s time for him to go to a new school in the fall, he stays in hiding in New York, living with the junkie and meeting Sookie (Claire Danes), yet another quirky character, but one who teaches him about life and. . .stuff. Soon, however, he finds out that his brother Oliver (Ryan Phillipe) has been sent to take him back.

While the characters themselves seem interesting at first, only a few go beyond sketches and show some dimension – which may not even be because of the writing, but because of the competence of the actors. Sarandon once again delivers a fantastic performance as a woman who can be so mean you can’t help but love her. The fact is that she cares about her children in some way and you can’t entirely hate her for some reason that isn’t entirely clear. Kieran’s Igby is similarly difficult to surmise. He can be snobby, bratty and simply whiny. But you can’t help but feel his pain and sympathize with his anomie. Whether the line calls for shameless sarcasm or unabashed sentimentalism, Culkin nearly always delivers it perfectly.

The secondary characters, however, are a different story. I am glad Jeff Goldblum has developed his sentence-building abilities and can now speak quasi-coherently. Good for him. Ryan Phillipe is basically replaying his snotty role from “Cruel Intentions,” and Amanda Peet seems to have been cast solely for gratuitous nudity. Oh, and Jared Harris is in there to make a couple wisecracks.

In fact, the only true conflict in the movie’s plot is the relationship between Igby and his mother, and the scenes between Culkin and Sarandon quickly evolve to be the best in the movie. It is there that Steers, who also wrote the screenplay, shows that he is capable of showing some more dimension in his characters. Most of the time, Igby is shown as a disaffected and sometimes brutal young man. The earlier scenes where we supposedly see how his father’s sickness affected him are unfortunately separated from the present-day sequences by a six year gap. We get his pain through his mother, and though she isn’t particularly likeable, we see what she has had to cope with as well.

But besides these characters and, to some extent, Oliver, no one else goes beyond being a caricature: the affable artist druggies, the money-grubbing relatives – even Claire Danes, despite her best efforts, is given very little to work with. At one crucial point where Igby, Oliver and Danes’ Sookie converge in a love triangle, it seems the shallowness problem gets stilted and remains unresolved – but resolution is a recurring current within the movie.

The movie is too unevenly paced, with some issues and scenes taking too long to develop while some others of equal or more interest end up being too short. Characters walk in and walk out, exchange witty banter and at some points, I came close to yelling, “Igby, shut up and go back to school,” because it seemed the movie would end up as a collection of scenes depicting “Igby being lost.” Luckily, it did eventually go somewhere, though the ending left me with mixed feelings.

Love him or hate him, Igby certainly warrants a watch for the intriguing nature of his character. Culkin and Sarandon hold together a story that entertains and often provokes, even if sometimes you wonder about the point of the scene at hand. And though it’s not brilliant, it’s clever enough to keep you amused. And that part about gratuitous nudity – I wasn’t kidding.