Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York is a series of mysteries wrapped up in a coming-of-age tale. From searching for the identities of a beautiful unknown woman and a wizened old author, to unearthing the complicated history of his parent’s past, Thomas (Callum Turner), a precocious recent college graduate, is pulled in so many directions that his growth and maturity feels entirely determined by wherever the narrative takes him. The intermingling of elements from disparate genres is at first symbiotic, yielding humor and pathos. But as the film spirals outward from its central relationship to delve into other characters’ hidden pasts, the story becomes too unwieldy and fragmented for the audience to develop a comprehensive understanding of Thomas or his personal evolution.
The film opens with W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), a reclusive alcoholic who’s later revealed to be a famous writer, pining for a New York that was rough, dangerous, and as such exciting. Soon after this introduction, we learn that Thomas, who has dreams of being a writer, is prone to making similar proclamations of New York’s newfound soullessness when he repeats a joke that the city’s most vibrant neighborhood is now Philadelphia. Upon becoming neighbors, the two men quickly recognize one another as kindred spirits, and they forge an even stronger bond after Thomas leans on W.F. for advice when his good friend, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), rejects his romantic intentions.
It’s difficult not to scoff at the hackneyed setup of W.F. and Thomas’s friendship, with the time-weathered, elder doling out sage advice on life and love over glasses of whiskey to an eager youngster looking to soak it up like a sponge. Nonetheless, Bridges and Turner’s performances are so striking for their relaxed intensity that these scenes ultimately transcend cliché.
Once Thomas discovers that his father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), is having an affair and sets out to confront the mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), the film’s plot becomes too convoluted. When Thomas begins to follow Johanna, it’s under the guise of protecting his unstable mother, Judith (Cynthia Nixon), but he quickly succumbs to the charms of his father’s flirtatious lover, both because of her beauty and, perhaps, to make Mimi jealous. This forces Thomas to confront his already contentious relationship with Ethan, a famous publisher who dismissed his son’s writing as “serviceable” and criticizes his every post-graduate move. And in doing so, Thomas discovers past incidents that change his perception of those closest to him.
While Webb nicely captures the insular mentality of high-end Upper West Side denizens and effectively juxtaposes the whimsical tone of the film’s first half with the more embittered tone of the second, The Only Living Boy in New York’s various narrative detours too often lead us away from the intriguing relationship between Thomas and W.F. The young man’s unwitting transition from a passionate writer and thinker to a second-rate detective is symptomatic of the film’s willingness to sacrifice character depth in order to shoehorn in extraneous backstories to link many of its characters together. And even though the third-act revelation serves to further strengthen the connection between Thomas and W.F., it comes off as a cheap writer’s trick. As such, the film’s emotional resonance feels hollow, watered down by an overstuffed plot that bites off more than it can chew.