Over the hand drawn pre-titles sequence, author Julian Stellars begins reading his latest novel. He introduces us to Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), a young man seeking direction in his life. Thomas’ urbane, handsome father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) heads a successful publishing house. His highly strung mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is a former artist who self medicates with alcohol, pills and dinner parties. Thomas is in love with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). Unfortunately, she already has a boyfriend. Like Thomas, Mimi aspires to a literary career. Unlike Thomas, she intends moving to Croatia to pursue it.
Thomas has moved out of his parents’ swish apartment in the Upper West Side to live in a small, dingy apartment on the Lower East. There, he is befriended by new neighbour, “an unmade bed of a man”, W.F. Gerald (the ubiquitous Jeff Bridges), who effortlessly assumes the role of mentor to Thomas. Unlike Ethan, who assessed his son’s writing as “serviceable”, W.F. considers the young man’s writing to have potential. He also offers sage advice about winning Mimi’s heart.
Then Thomas meets his father’s mistress, the beautiful Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and his life is thrown into turmoil. Over the ensuing weeks, Thomas finally begins to comprehend the infinite complexity of human nature, love and relationships. As the back stories of the various characters unfold, he comes to appreciate the veracity of his mother Judith’s observation that “the farthest distance in the world is between how it is and how you thought it was going to be”. Indeed, where all the characters are by the epilogue, was not at all predicable at the beginning of the film. Writer Allan Loeb’s empathetic depiction of the young man’s emotional and intellectual coming of age is beautifully realised by director Marc Webb and his stellar cast.
The film is enhanced not only by the well-drawn, accessible characters but also by the variety of backgrounds that New York provides. Every location is real: the Webbs’ large, stylish apartment; the dingy, downtown studios where Thomas and W.F. live, the offices and bookshops, the bars and restaurants, the streets and alleys. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and David Gropman’s production team clearly relish bringing this New York to the screen, complemented as it is by Rob Simonsen’s eclectic musical soundtrack.
If The Only Living Boy in New York was really a book, it would be utterly “un-put-down-able”.