Allan Loeb certainly isn’t a household name, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ve might’ve seen one or two of his credited movies. Whether it’s “21,” “The Switch,” “The Dilemma,” “Just Go With It,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “Rock of Ages” or last year’s regrettable “Collateral Beauty,” just to name a handful, Loeb is one of those screenwriters who’s quick to diversify his resume but never able to prove his skills. His filmography reads like a collection of the most mediocre and downright forgettable movies of the past ten years, and some might say that’s being rather generous.
Not unlike your average Nicholas Sparks adaptation or your annual Tyler Perry production, Loeb’s scripts tend to run on formula. You can usually find youthful and/or emotionally or psychologically frustrated protagonists hoping to find their way. There are the wise and mindful supporting characters who are quick to lend a hand to help them grow in their journey. There are rambling, quasi-philosophical monologues about life and its various meanings. And there are at least one or two fairly convoluted twists that come around the second and third acts to keep the audience on their toes. The Loeb template is getting tiresome, and it’s hard to argue otherwise when watching his latest, “The Only Living Boy in New York,” a cloying, somewhat patronizing and often unremarkable NYC-based coming-of-age dramedy.
Recent college graduate Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) is a bright 20-something would-be writer with no clear direction. He lives a mostly comfortable life in the heart of Manhattan with his stern, unsympathetic publisher father Ethan (Pierce Bronson) and his depressed mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), and he harbors a growing crush on the beautiful and intelligent college student Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), who is planning to move far away from New York. Along the way, Thomas moves into a new apartment on the far side of town — away from his nagging parents — and finds himself in the company of his insightful, but mysterious (and wealthy) new neighbor W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges, giving another strong supporting performance — even if this film doesn’t deserve it). It’s an aimless life, but it’s not bad.
That soon changes, however, when Thomas and Judith notice something they shouldn’t: Ethan is having an affair with the stunningly gorgeous Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), a woman whom Thomas also can’t help but admire. In typical movie fashion, Thomas follows her, stalks her, then later pesters her, hoping she won’t upset his unstable family but he, inevitably, gets romantically involved too. It doesn’t take long for the love triangle to grow complicated, and it also doesn’t take long before Thomas must learn some hard truths, make some adult decisions, and so on and so forth.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” is based on one of Loeb’s earliest known (or, at least, first bought) scripts, one that has sat in development hell for most of this ongoing decade. Admittedly, it’s not hard to see why it sparked interest. The dialogue is inspired even when it’s heavy-handed. The premise is familiar but told with clear earnestness and with moments of (somewhat) bold passion. The supporting characters can be fun and sometimes enjoyably witty and the opportunity to showcase the cinematic good graces of New York City is one that Hollywood can seemingly never resist. As told by director Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies, this year’s similarly middling “Gifted“), however, “The Only Living Boy in New York” feels overly twee and lacks any grounded sincerity. It’s bad enough that Loeb’s familiar narrative beats are all laid out, but even without the screenwriter’s repetitive writing tropes, much of the material feels routine.
One of the biggest faults of the film comes from its lead casting. While promising in his supporting turn in “Green Room,” and well-regarded in his lead turn in Netflix‘s “Tramps,” Turner is defiantly uncharismatic as Thomas Webb. His delivery is flat, his emotional journey lacks any honesty or depth, and as a result, our desire to root for this lead character is non-existent. It also doesn’t help that literally every other character is far more interesting than our central protagonist. They have soul, intuition and perspectives that are meant to lend wisdom and nuance into Thomas’s tumultuous quarter-life crisis. Instead, it makes you long for them to take hold of the narrative, away from Thomas and his glum, bland musings. It’s clear that the filmmakers are going for a Woody Allen-esque vibe here, but even the weakest Allen character has something funny or meaningful to say. Thomas has nothing.
There’s no doubt that “The Only Living Boy in New York” wants to emulate generational classics like “The Graduate” or maybe even, to an extent, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with trying to be the next ‘Graduate,’ though God knows many, many others have tried to pull off the same feat. But “The Only Living Boy In New York” — like so many other recent movies written by Loeb — is lackluster at best and terribly trite at its worst. Upon recollecting his past, Thomas tells Johanna that his father put an abrupt end to his young writing aspirations when he called some of his essays “serviceable.” I can’t think of a better word to describe this movie. It’s not merely that “The Only Living Boy in New York” is reductive, corny and uninvolving; it’s that it tries to be something more profound and enlightened than it actually is. [C]