At Middleton (2013) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for drug use and brief sexuality
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Nicholas Braun, Peter Riegert, Mirjana Jokovic
Small role: Tom Skerritt
Director: Adam Rodgers
Screenplay: Glenn German, Adam Rodgers

Review published February 5, 2014

Although At Middleton is a film that had a small theatrical run concurrent with an "On Demand" release, and such films are usually lesser in terms of audience expectations, it will likely rank as one of the most ambivalent experiences you may have watching a film this year.  It features two very good lead performances and a one-day flirtatious romance that really works because of the natural chemistry of Andy Garcia (The Pink Panther 2, Ocean's Thirteen) and Vera Farmiga ("Bates Motel", The Conjuring).  They want to be together.  You will want them to be together.  But, like them, the fact that they are married (and not to each other), will also make you wish, like the characters in the film, that none of us had this feeling. 

It's a film that has no obvious happy resolution, because either way it goes, it's unsatisfying.  But I do give credit to first-time feature writer-director Adam Rodgers and co-screenwriter Glenn German for knowing this going in and resolving the film in a respectable fashion, given how tricky the premise is. 

That premise is a fairly simple one, involving an introverted heart surgeon named George Hartman (Garcia) taking his son Conrad (Lofranco, Jamesy Boy) to a small but esteemed college called Middleton for a tour of the place at the same time that free-spirited childrens furniture store owner Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga) brings her daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring).  The two parents end up getting separated from the rest of the tour, leaving them to explore the grounds together, and find they enjoy each others company.  The hours they spend together reveals that it's not just all fun and games between them, but being that they're both married to other people, they dance around the fact that they're actually quite attracted to one another.   

Rodgers and German are inspired by sophisticated French films that regularly feature such premises built on the angst of lovers who can't be together, and this homage is tipped off when the two crash a screening of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Such comparisons don't exactly bode in the film's favor mostly because At Middleton is neither sophisticated nor artful, playing like a mix of television movie romance and stereotypical frat-house college comedy, except with two very good actors front and center.  When they're doing the French romance thing, the film works, such as a cute scene in which the two borrow a couple of bicycles and ride around campus, play a duet on piano, or spend time admiring the scenery up in the tall, quaint bell tower.  When they're bickering with their children or going up to a college dorm room to take hits off of a bong with college kids, it beings the romantic momentum back down to earth.

In addition to the French romantic angles, At Middleton is also a mesh with old Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, with the light romantic banter.  Vera Farmiga mentions in interviews how she strived to channel the style of such comediennes as Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, and while she doesn't engage much in the physical comedy style of either, she does give a nice, light touch to her role that works well.  Meanwhile, Garcia goes against the grain of his tough-guy persona by going for meek and stuffy, but with a repression that Edith is eventually able to pull him out of when he loosens up in her presence.  The fun they have together feels genuine, which is when the film is at its best.

The side plots involving the two teens aren't particularly compelling, though the actors aren't bad.  Taissa Farmiga plays the daughter to Vera, and their resemblance is certainly striking enough to believe this, but in real-life the two are actually sisters, twenty-one years apart in age.  The paralells mostly exist to strike up the contrast between the kids, who are trying to be serious about their college experience and grow up, while the adults learn to loosen up and relive the freedom of their younger years by imagining the carefree days that ended when they married and had a kid at a relatively early age.  Nevertheless, Tom Skerritt (Ted, Tears of the Sun) chips in a good performance in a cameo role as the esteemed professor that Audrey would like to mentor her.

At Middleton is worth a look for the terrific interplay of Garcia and Farmiga, and while their performances are enough for them to carry this vehicle above its occasionally sophomoric tendencies toward comedy, they deserve a better movie around them, perhaps in the vain of the similarly plotted Before Sunrise.  Hopefully, they will graduate to bigger and better things together down the road.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo