Starring Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Taissa Farmiga, Peter Riegert and Tom Skerritt
Directed by Adam Rodgers
From Anchor Bay Films
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Perceptive truths revealed in witty college comedy
At Middleton isn't really about college. It's about a parent's perception of college, then funneled into fantasy and dreams, then boiled back to reality. It's a complicated formula, but one that is well worth all the chemistry.
The movie is about heart surgeon George and upscale furniture store owner Edith. They're married, but not to each other. They're taking their children — George's son Conrad and Edith's daughter Audrey — to Middleton University for a guided tour of the campus. They meet in the parking lot when George, nerdy and obsessive — “He probably irons his underwear,” Edith says — decides to be that guy who must back into his parking space. Edith steals the spot, sparking a lovable little feud.
Their tour group is led by Justin, who has witty little wisecracks for everything including how the school statue was stolen, where the bathrooms in the library are located ("Ironically, just past the Ps.") and a rather sinister joke about campus rape. This actor is playing this role like his career depends on it. I hope he lands another movie.
As the tour progresses, George and Edith, still in their catty feud, are separated from the group. As they bicker and trade barbs, they come to appreciate their similar predicaments: they’re both without their spouses touring a college with children who mostly hate them. The rest plays like a movie-length version of a Meet Cute, a phrase Roger Ebert pioneered and championed, a phrase that describes that charming set of circumstances that brings adorable couples together.
At Middleton works because the dialogue is snappy and smart — and brutally honest — and George and Edith are played by a bowtied Andy Gracia and a free-wheeling Vera Farmiga, both of whom can retire from romantic comedies now that they they've nailed this one. The people they play are mostly dopey and written as if they were on a Disney sitcom, but by the end of the movie I was cherishing them.
The movie follows them around Middleton as they skip from adventure to adventure, including when they steal two unchained bikes, break into classrooms, smoke pot in a dorm and bare their personal wounds in heartbreaking sequences that are so unique I found myself wondering how they ended up in this small movie of all places. It's like finding the Hope Diamond at the Walmart jewelry counter.
Some of it is silly and fun: they sneak into a music classroom and play a dazzlingly manic version of “Chopsticks.” Other scenes are brutally honest: after infiltrating an acting class they're asked to perform an improvisational husband-and-wife scene. As they role play the scenario, they project their own spouses onto each other. And for the first time in maybe their whole lives, these two people are honest with themselves about love, relationships and marriage. It's one of the finest scenes of the new year, and it certainly would have ranked high even if At Middleton had opened in the frenzy of awards season last year.
Some of the acting is rather awful, and college is portrayed as if the screenwriters had never actually been to one — at one point a kid wearing a football helmet on a unicycle rides past! They do manage to get Peter Riegert, an Animal House alumni, in there as the campus radio DJ. Mostly, though, college is shown as a fantasy, a place teens go to escape their parents, a place parents regretfully send their teens to grow up.
As the college-bound picture progresses it becomes abundantly clear that this isn't just a romantic comedy, but also a family drama as the two parents begin to contemplate their lives without their children in the home or, as Edith sees it, to be alone with her husband after 18 years, which terrifies her. The kids, played by Spencer Lofranco and Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s youngest sister), aren’t doing their parents any favors by rubbing salt in their expanding wounds. At one point, fed up, Edith turns to another parent and shrieks: “You want to know about Middleton? It doesn’t include you.” All George sees is flashes of parenting memories: “Sleepovers, soccer games, slamming doors. Where did the last 17 years go?”
At Middleton is a gloriously mediocre movie wrapped around some very perceptive ideas about parenting and love. It plays fast and loose with its mid-life quirkiness, and some of the neurotic banter will have you looking for Woody Allen cameos, but the film is filled with kernels of truth. And those truths resonate with surprising clarity. That's all I ask from my movies, and this one goes above and beyond.