A series in which I watch movies classified as ‘rotten’ by Rotten Tomatoes and try to find their redeeming qualities.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 33%
The Only Living Boy In New York tells the story of Thomas (Callum Turner), an aspiring writer, who discovers that his father (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with a beautiful woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). After stalking Johanna for some time, Thomas begins his own affair with her until he realises that she is still seeing his father. When Thomas finds out that his father intends to marry Johanna, he tells him about their own affair, ending both of their relationships with her.
There are also a couple of side-plots: Thomas begins the movie in love with a girl named Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) who insists that they are just friends as she has a boyfriend. By the end of the movie, she has broken up with her boyfriend and is ready to date Thomas until she finds out that he slept with Johanna. Thomas’ neighbour, W.F. (Jeff Bridges), narrates the film and acts as a guide/mentor for Thomas from their initial meeting at the beginning of the film. Eventually Thomas discovers that W.F. is actually a successful writer and his biological father.
Despite the fantastic cast, doing their absolute best with a less-than-average script, this movie didn’t resonate with many people. The film reaches for a serious tone (when an argument could be made that it would be much better suited to a comedic caper) but lands on tedious instead. This seems like it shouldn’t be possible for a plot so full of potential, but every scene feels longer than the last one and the tight running time of 88 minutes feels like an eternity.
The characters are thinly-written caricatures, representing the rich white elite, and seem entirely removed from the reality of current-day New York. Even the main character is largely unlikable. He exudes rich, white, male privilege and this is never examined at any point in the film. Rather the audience is left to try and sympathise with a character whose worldview seems to be the height of entitlement.
Written by Allan Loeb of Collateral Beauty (14% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Space Between Us (16% on Rotten Tomatoes), this movie follows a similar pattern to the aforementioned movies in that it cuts a good trailer, promises an interesting concept, then ultimately falls flat and yet… it’s not terrible. This is my argument for it:
The Only Living Boy In New York isn’t about the boy – it’s about New York.
Thomas is self-centred and desperate for something interesting to happen to him because he believes that that’s the only way to be a writer. He is “the only living boy in New York” – we know this because: he says it in an actual line of dialogue; it’s displayed on the screen at the beginning of the movie; a song of the same name plays in the film; and, just in case that wasn’t clear enough, it is the title of a manuscript one of the characters writes.
Obviously, he’s not literally the only living boy in New York. He’s not even figuratively the only living boy in New York but that’s how he feels. Living in a big city, living in New York, you feel real and everybody else is just a part of the scenery. The city isn’t just a city, it’s an organism. It lives and it breathes and it encompasses everything and everyone around you. When somebody steals your taxi, or you miss your train, it feels like the entire city is against you and that’s the root of Thomas’ myopia. He is a by-product of being young in New York City.
This movie tries so hard to be serious and artistic and even if it falls short of its original goal, it had to try. This could never be a comedy. As a film that is not just set in New York but is in fact about New York, there is a certain amount of reverence and respect that must be paid. When you think about the NYC Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee movies, regardless of their subject matter or tone, the city is its own character and it’s not to be made fun of.
In all of those famous movies, the city is a different character: New York is huge and multi-faceted. The Only Living Boy In New York tries to tap into the serious, literary side of the city. The characters may only be caricatures of this trope, but that is enough to clearly communicate the desired sentiment: New York is the home of the suffering artist.
Living within the constraints of this one characterisation of the city, the characters are removed from the realities of NYC today. The city today is multi-cultural and diverse in race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, and religion but this film doesn’t particularly care about the people. It is far more concerned about what the city represents and holds it to this idealised standard.
Truly, if you watch The Only Living Boy In New York without the sound on, it is undeniable that this is a love letter to the New York. Every single shot is beautiful – the movie was shot on film by Stuart Dryburgh – and every location has a certain amount of sheen to it. Even in Thomas’ run-down Lower East Side apartment, the production design feels very deliberate. Then the Upper West Side homes, elaborate weddings, and lavish publishing parties are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The movie presents Manhattan at it’s best: like what an outsider dreaming of moving to New York would imagine it to be.
The characters in this film are thinly-written, there’s no denying that, but they all have a unifying characteristic: loneliness. They’re rich and beautiful and they seem to be living perfect lives. From the perspective of an audience they seem obtuse and that can feel grating but it’s also very honest. We all lose sight of how lucky we are. When it’s you, when you’re in it, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters and money can’t buy you a sense of fulfilment. As beautiful and enticing as the city is, it’s also very lonely.
The Only Living Boy In New York is a portrait of Manhattan from the perspective of a young writer. The city is beautiful and intelligent and full of possibility but equally, it’s hard and it’s cold and it is very lonely. The film shows how New York can make you feel alone and as much as you might hate it, you don’t want to leave.