It isn’t hard to see “The Only Living Boy in New York” as a 50th-anniversary reimagining of 1967’s “The Graduate.” Director Marc Webb’s film, like Mike Nichols’ half a century ago, follows a lost young 20-something who stumbles into a sexual relationship with an older woman while struggling in a relationship with a woman his own age, and is anchored by a melancholy Simon and Garfunkel tune.
But in spite of the similarities, “Only Living Boy in New York” can only achieve a faint echo of its inspiration’s conflicted resonance. Ultimately, in spite of the efforts of a truly stellar cast, the absurd twists and turns of writer Allan Loeb’s story undo Webb’s musing on the lives of affluent New York intellectuals adrift without a true moral compass.
The New York City of “Only Living Boy in New York,” according to the film’s opening moments, has lost its soul. On the plus side, you can hang out in Times Square without getting mugged, but all the great icons of the past — like CBGB’s — have been replaced with so many franchises.
Webb’s East Coast Ben Braddock is Thomas (Callum Turner), a lost Manhattanite whose idea of rebellion is living on the Lower East Side because his wealthy parents live on the Upper West Side. He looks like a young Richard Gere, talks like David Duchovny, and gives off just enough of a Woody Allen vibe to make him a perfect stand-in for 21st-century New York.
Thomas’s father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), runs a successful publishing company, and has managed to discourage his son from pursuing his aspirations as a writer, labeling his efforts “serviceable.” So Thomas laments to Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), the girl he hangs out with constantly, but who, in true noncommittal millennial fashion, has locked him into the “friend zone.” He also confides with W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), the nosy all-knowing sage who moves into his building and takes an automatic interest in his life.
The plot gets rolling when Thomas sees his father out on the town with Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), a freelance editor who sometimes does work for Ethan’s company. Thomas stalks Johanna, confronts her and, in a preposterous moment that is supposed to be lighthearted, they launch into an affair of their own.
From here, all the various characters follow their duplicitous threads, musing on the nature of desire and the meaning of love, unable to understand why their lives are miserable and unfulfilled. Thomas’s mother, Judith (Cynthia Nixon), feels like the only true victim of the bunch, until additional narrative twists further derail the story and suggest that even she has had a hand in her own misery.
Webb was the man behind 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer,” another film that played with the conventions of romantic comedy. But where that film benefitted from a great cast and a compelling story, Webb’s new effort only has the great cast, and they nearly pull off the job. “The Only Living Boy in New York” is almost watchable for its cast alone, and Bridges and Beckinsale especially feel like anchors to the film, even if their characters lack the moral roots to give their actions credibility.
At the end of “The Graduate,” Ben and Elaine sat stunned at the back of the bus as their shallow romantic elation turned to sobriety. Those characters were pretty lost too but, in 50 years, the New Yorker’s of “The Only Living Boy in New York” don’t seem to have learned very much from the lessons of their West Coast peers.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” is rated R for language and some drug material; running time: 88 minutes.