Thursday, January 30, 2014

Campus Love: Farmiga and Garcia elevate mild, light-as-air "At Middleton"

At Middleton (2014)
99 min., rated R.

Pairing the lovely, versatile Vera Farmiga and the well-aged Andy Garcia as two married parents with college-bound children, "At Middleton" is an example of performers counting for a lot in transcending frothy middlebrow material. Being the directorial debut of Adam Rodgers, who collaborated on the screenplay with Glenn German, the film is clearly a rookie's feature, but it's at its strongest when concentrating on the two appealing actors and their playful give-and-take. Anyone expecting another "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," or "Before Midnight" between two middle-aged adults who have just met and hit it off might be disappointed that it's not talkier or consistently natural. Limitations of the script aside, this little romantic comedy is unassumingly sweet and likable enough to not complain too much.

Set over the course of an afternoon, the film soon takes place during a campus tour of the fictional Middleton College. On their way, straight-laced cardiac surgeon George Hartman (Andy Garcia) is forcing the school onto his indifferent son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco). The outspoken, free-spirited Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga), who sells "high-end children's furniture," has a different opinion of Middleton, finding it too small, while daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga) is more gung-ho about attending. Edith takes George's parking spot, which initially sets a prickly tone for them both during the campus tour led by student guide Justin (a goofy Nicholas Braun), a self-described "dingleberry." Once they get away from the tour, the married parents start to get along and experience Middleton for themselves. From there, the two strangers hang out on a bell tower, frolic around on bikes, share a piano duet, and inadvertently participate in a drama class. Meanwhile, Audrey eagerly makes an appointment with heroic linguistics professor, Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt), to be her mentor, while Conrad pursues his dream in radio in a meeting with the school deejay (a cool, amusing Peter Riegert). Edith and George both know their kids are ready to leave their nest, but for one day, this is their play time.

Settling somewhere between madcap and low-key without a deftly calibrated tone, "At Middleton" gets off to a shaky, too-cute start and then proceeds trying to find its footing. There's a convincing opposites-attract meet-cute, but it's less authentic when Edith and George "borrow" a couple of bikes and then hide behind a bush from the campus police. Or, take the instance where they take the edge off by smoking a few bong hits with coed Daphne (Daniella Garcia-Lorido, Andy's daughter) and her bearded boyfriend in a dorm room. It's not until midway, where Edith and George spy on a drama class from the rafters and then get called down to participate. They get a crack at an acting exercise and we see glimpses of longing and unhappiness in Edith and George, continuing to a park bench where they both call their significant others, but it's in that brief, poignant section where the film enters and then exits from deeper emotional waters. They're a pleasure to be around, but one still wishes these two characters felt more fully formed and were given even more room to breathe to understand where they're coming from.

Finally getting the chance to shed the darkness and really flex her comedic muscles, Vera Farmiga is funny, fiery, moving, and wonderfully spontaneous as the restless Edith. Sometimes, Edith comes off over-caffeinated, although to be fair, she has had three cups of coffee. Though glasses and a bow tie would suggest otherwise, Andy Garcia isn't overly buttoned-up as George. He's given the chance to loosen up even more as the day progresses, but his co-star gets to be the live-wire. Even when the comedic hijinks are broad, these two instill everything with a breeziness that's fun to watch. The casting of Farmiga and her 19-year-old sister as mother and daughter is a comfortable fit, although Taissa Farmiga, as the prone-to-correct Audrey, comes off too standoffish and unreasonably bratty to believe when she doesn't get her way. She's a little bit better when sharing her time with guarded but photogenic newcomer Spencer Lofranco (recently starring together in "Jamesy Boy").

Simply idyllic lensing on the grounds of Washington and Gonzaga University, as well as some literate writing, certainly shine. The word "feckless" from Audrey's word game on her phone becomes its own running joke, and 1964's Catherine Deneuve-starring French romance "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" gets referenced. What director Rodgers wants to say about the potential roads of life and parents having a moment of recklessness due to impending Empty Nest Syndrome isn't always sound, but how the story closes is smarter and more bittersweet than nearly every big-studio release. Edith and George enjoy each other's company for a short time, even if they both know nothing can come of their encounter once they get into their respective vehicles and return to their normal lives, and their kids learn a thing or two about themselves, too. "At Middleton" is pleasant and light as a feather, and Farmiga and Garcia rise above the early tonal problems and contrivances to make it a mild, charming trifle.

Grade: B -

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