As a film, The Only Living Boy in New York is supposed to be an examination of a man’s life as he learns its deeper truth. Unfortunately, it ends up as a story of a spoiled person who sees the world only in terms of what he wants. From the initial scenes, protagonist Thomas (Callum Turner) disregards the needs and boundaries of others, particularly the women in his life, and this makes it very hard to sympathize with him.
The Only Living Boy in New York centers around the relationship between Thomas and W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), two neighbors who, despite their age difference, form a bond when Gerald tries to give Thomas advice on his unrequited love for his friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). When Thomas learns his father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), is having an affair with a gorgeous older woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), he is determined to bring it to an end. Instead the two end up starting a torrid love affair of their own. Throughout all this, Thomas returns to Gerald again and again, discussing his situation and trying to find some guidance in their talks. The situation becomes increasingly complex as Thomas begins to learn more about Gerald and his own past.
For the story in this film to work, Thomas needed to be likeable and regrettably he is an objectionable character. Callum Turner puts in a good performance, but the poorly constructed story and lack of meaningful development prevents him from rising above the limitations of the script. Thomas vacillates between petulance and smug assurance while maintaining a consistent attitude of entitlement. The women he meets are expected to cater to his whims, whether to answer personal questions, fall in love with him, or just have sex on demand.
The women themselves, Mimi and Johanna, are given only cursory backstories, and their characters change in whatever way is needed to fit the plot and the needs of the men in the film. Johanna, the object of desire between Thomas and his father, is played to great effect by Kate Beckinsale. She exudes a sensuality and flippant attitude that is well done, but the whiplash of her characters’ changes throughout the film undercut everything she contributes. Mimi, Thomas’s friend and unwilling object of desire, gets the worst of the script’s flaws. The film sets her character up as both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the tease who has “friend-zoned: Thomas, but it quickly abandons both of these pretenses in favor of the more dramatic story between Johanna and Thomas. Neither of these women are ever allowed to behave as real people; instead, they are repositories of Thomas’s dreams of what women are, Beckinsale as the sultry sexpot and Clemons as the virginal good girl.
Jeff Bridges is a phenomenal actor, but not even his natural charms can overcome the ham-fisted dialogue and clichéd character beats that the film offers him. His advice to Thomas, usually dispensed over whiskey and joints, is often enabling of Thomas’ poor decisions. He is also the narrator of the film and it uses him as the shortcut to explain character motivations instead of taking the time to develop them naturally.
Everything from the other character’s dialogue to the camera placement is devoted to showing Thomas as sympathetic while his actions and words reveal him to be a jerk. The conflict between what the film tries to present and what is actually on screen is jarring. By the end, the movie is a mess of contradictions and cheap happy endings. The Only Living Boy in New York is never able to achieve cohesion among its disparate story lines and suffers from its dedication to showing Thomas as a good guy despite all evidence to the contrary.