Academy Award nominees Andy Garcia (Ocean’s 11, City Island) and Vera Farmiga (A&E’s Bates Motel, Up in the Air) star as straight-laced, George and eccentric Edith, two strangers who meet on their children’s college tour at the idyllic Middleton University. Despite their opposing temperaments, George and Edith play hooky together, ditching the textbook tour for a carefree afternoon reminiscent of their youth. But what begins as an afternoon of fun soon becomes a revealing and enlightening experience that will change their lives forever. A light-hearted romance for adults on the surface, At Middleton is a deeply moving and enlightening portrait of the timelessness of romance and youth. Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story”), Spencer Lofranco (Jamesy Boy), Peter Reigert (“Dads”), and Tom Skerritt (“Picket Fences”) also star in this story about what can happen on your first day of college – no matter who you are – At Middleton.
Countless movies possess solid, intriguing premises, yet get tripped up by their execution, and unfortunately, 'At Middleton' is one of them. Though this sweetly intentioned comedy-drama tries its best to strike the right notes - and occasionally succeeds - its self-conscious quirkiness and credulity-straining plot developments often dilute the honest emotions on display and diminish the film's impact. What begins as a promising tale of fleeting second-chance love and middle-age self-discovery winds up a conglomeration of preciously constructed contrivances that trivialize the story's more meaningful aspects.
And that's a shame, because 'At Middleton' brims with potential. As the film opens, a father and son, George and Conrad Hartman (Andy Garcia and Spencer Lofranco), and mother and daughter, Edith and Audrey Martin (Vera Farmiga and Taissa Farmiga), arrive separately at the bucolic Middleton College for the requisite campus tour. George is a mild-mannered, uptight, introspective heart surgeon, while the outspoken, impulsive, cynical, uninhibited Edith acutely dreads her child's impending departure from the nest. The two coincidentally meet in the parking lot and soon decide to shuck the organized tour in favor of self-navigated exploration. Like two kids playing hooky from school, they prowl around the campus, making mischief and rediscovering their inner teenager. They traipse through the library, climb the church bell tower, steal a couple of bicycles, crash an acting class, perform a spirited rendition of 'Chopsticks' in the music building, and get high in a dorm room with a couple of co-eds. And over the day's long arc, they learn more about each other than they do about Middleton. But how close can two people get in eight short hours, and what effect will their growing friendship have on the rest of their lives?
First-time writer-director Adam Rodgers, who collaborated on the script with Glenn German, creates an intimate, visually pleasing environment and obviously cares about his finely drawn characters. Yet his wispy yarn struggles to sustain itself, thanks to an episodic structure built on trite situations that might sound amusing in a pitch session, but don't produce the desired effect when played out on screen. You can almost hear Rodgers and German saying, "Let's have them do this...and then this!" without cohesively linking the escapades together. Though it only runs 100 minutes, 'At Middleton' seems longer. A good 15 minutes could have been trimmed without sacrificing any emotional momentum. In fact, a leaner presentation would have heightened audience involvement and possibly lofted the film onto the same rarefied plane as the recent 'Enough Said,' another adult romantic comedy that deals with mid-life issues, but in a far more relatable manner, despite the unbelievable coincidence that drives its plot.
As someone who can personally identify with the gamut of feelings George and Edith share, as well as their current station in life, I wanted to embrace 'At Middleton,' but while the film's essence struck a chord, its mechanics alienated me. Maybe it's too dull and stagnant to allow the romantic leads to develop an affinity for each other just by naturally interacting, but forcing them to endure a series of trivial and "cute" situations only calls attention to the artificiality of their relationship. Woody Allen can make static scenes work, because much of his comedy stems from his characters, lending it truth. Here, however, comic situations are foisted on the characters, with varying degrees of success, often resulting in an awkwardness that takes us out of the movie. George and Edith are also too cut and dried, lacking the complexity and dimensionality to make them vivid presences.
Garcia and Vera Farmiga do as much as they can with their roles, laboring valiantly and crafting winning portrayals. Though they play a bit too broadly at times, trying to enhance the comic angle, both exude a disarmingly natural air, and the comfortable chemistry they create seems real. While it's fun to watch them try to recapture their lost youth, relive the collegiate experience, and act far more immature than their insecure children, Rodgers takes it all too far. Typical of novice directors, he doesn't know when to quit, allowing scenes and moments to linger too long, indulging his inventiveness, and protecting the sanctity of his own words. Taissa Farmiga and Lofranco assert themselves well in cardboard parts, but can't rise above the constraining material. (Interestingly, Taissa Farmiga, who plays Vera's daughter in the film, is actually Vera's sister, younger by 21 years.) Garcia's daughter, Daniella, also appears in the film, as a campus projectionist with a secret stash in her dorm room.
'At Middleton' possesses its share of charm, warmth, and insight, but too many bumps in the road impede our enjoyment of this simple, modest tale. The beginning and end nicely resonate, but what's in between only fleetingly connects and rings true. Like many a college I toured in my youth, this film has plenty of merit, but it's just not for me.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'At Middleton' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080-/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Enough Said,' 'Small Times,' 'City Island,' 'Jayne Mansfield's Car,' and 'Snake & Mongoo$e' precede the full-motion menu with music.
The rolling lawns and verdant foliage of the fictional Middleton campus look lush, vibrant, and crystal clear in this excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that also features wonderful contrast and a palpable sense of depth. Though digitally shot, the movie possesses a warmth and texture that often fools us into believing we're watching film. Grain, of course, is absent, and not a single speck or mark could be detected on the pristine source material. Black levels are rich and inky, the white of Farmiga's outfit is crisp and defined throughout, and fleshtones look natural. Aside from the wildly intense greens that often flood the screen, there's not a lot of bold color in 'At Middleton,' but all the hues appear true and lifelike, with Garcia's yellow polka-dotted bowtie making a nice statement.
Close-ups are razor sharp and display fine facial features well, background elements are easy to discern, and shadow delineation is quite good. No banding, noise, or pixelation disrupt the movie's flow, and no obvious enhancements mar the picture's integrity. This is quite a pleasing effort from Anchor Bay that honors the story's tone and subtle presentation.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that suits the film's quiet nature well. Though surround activity is faint, some subtle atmospherics occasionally bleed into the rears, providing a full-bodied aural experience. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, yet this isn't the type of film that pushes the boundaries in any way. Bass frequencies are muted, but help lend Arturo Sandoval's simple score vital warmth and texture, and excellent fidelity allows the music to fill the room with ease.
Dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, and no distortion or imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, sully the mix. This is solid, if unspectacular sound that nicely complements the film in an unobtrusive manner...and you can't ask for much more than that.
A few negligible extras round out the disc.
Audio Commentary - Writer-director Adam Rodgers, writer-producer Glenn German, and actor-producer Andy Garcia sit down for a rather dreary commentary that's little more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Now, I'm all for enthusiasm and pride over a job well done, but a discomfitting air of smugness pervades this subdued discussion that provides precious few details about the production process. We learn the movie was shot in 20 days with a digital camera at both Gonzaga and Washington State universities, that a small role was played by Garcia's daughter, and a couple of interesting anecdotes are shared, but comments like "Vera even makes a bathroom look beautiful" are just superfluous filler and not worthy of our time. Only those with as high an opinion of the film as Rodgers, German, and Garcia need bother with this ho-hum dialogue.
Outtake Reel (HD, 11 minutes) - This is a glorified gag reel that only displays a couple of excised moments. Most of the footage focuses on various bloopers and break-ups. Like the movie itself, it's fun for awhile, but goes on too long.
"There Was a Day" (HD, 4 minutes) - Arturo Sandoval, who wrote the film's score, collaborated with Garcia on the music for this Spanish-flavored piece. Garcia penned the lyrics and tackles the vocals, but his delivery leaves a bit to be desired...to say the least. A photo montage from the movie accompanies the song.
'At Middleton' is a middling comedy-drama that resembles many of the students who attend the film's eponymous college. It's filled with promise, but not much of it is realized. Adam Rodgers' bittersweet look at middle-aged ennui, rejuvenation, and rebirth possesses some lovely moments, but forced humor and contrived situations sink the slight story, and even spirited performances from Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga can't salvage it. The Blu-ray presentation features top-flight video and solid audio, but falls short in the supplements department. More restraint and less indulgence would have helped this intriguing trifle - which is still worth a rental - make a stronger impression. Though many will be charmed by the premise and portrayals, they weren't enough to capture my fancy.