It's campus tour day at Middleton University, on which the newest batch of irritable potential students and anxious parents gather for a few hours of terrible jokes with one of the many student tour guides. Today, two of these parents are George (Andy Garcia) and Edith (Vera Farmiga), who are ushering in reluctant Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) and laser-focused Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), respectively. They first meet in the parking lot, where Edith unwittingly steals the space that George is planning on backing into (despite having to pull into a different spot to line up), then again on the tour, when Edith spots George balancing precariously on a ledge in order to get cell phone reception. It becomes clear early on that neither child is particularly interested in spending the day with their parent, so George and Edith go on their own tour of Middleton.
At Middleton is a film that is tailored to a very specific type of audience member. Anyone who has read the above synopsis or seen the trailer and really wanted to see the movie can probably check out of this review right now. As a film critic, my job is to assess the film on what's going on beneath the surface (if anything is), and of course I have my biases and opinions as well. The sum total of this is that the following review may end up sounding condescending, but that's not the intent. I admit, I wish viewers of films and television would be more discerning (mainly because I think films that please the general audience and the critics are honestly not that rare), but I don't begrudge an audience member who likes a film like At Middleton. That said, the film aims to walk two lines, and unfortunately, it ends up on the wrong side of both of them.
First of all, At Middleton wants to be a film "for grown-ups." Modern movies are notorious for forgetting anyone over 35 (and really, those last four years are kinda touch-and-go), but director / co-writer Adam Rodgers and co-writer Glen Germann have mistaken "for parents" for "for grown-ups." Edith's comment about how Audrey is inseparable from her phone is meant to be a big laugh line, as is Conrad's insistence that George not say "tight." They bond over their insecurities about seeing their kids leave the nest, with an added layer of "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" syndrome in Edith's insistent free-spirit nature (although the cliche is softened in that George's stodginess is mostly just a personality flaw rather than a serious conflict). Sure enough, the kids' dialogue is a bit "uncanny valley", more of a parent's memory of teenagers than actual teenagers.
Middleton's bigger flaw, though, is that it is less charming than it is pleasant. George has a fear of heights, which reveals itself when Edith drags him to the top of a bell tower. The pair "borrow" a set of bicycles for quicker transport around campus, then have to hide from a pair of campus cops looking for them. Later, they crash an improv class, of course, are forced to take part, of course, and they reveal more about themselves through their improv than they could ever have expected, of course. The low point comes when they end up in a dorm room and get high with a pair of students (Daniella Garcia-Lorido and Stephen Borrello IV), George for the first time in his life. These are all inoffensive little episodes (the film's R-rating is baffling) that play into the audience's expectations -- not without skill, but not much nuance.
Garcia and Farmiga make for a good team, creating chemistry almost out of thin air. There's no denying the desire to see this mismatched pair together, even as the film aggressively trumpets their mismatched chemistry to the point that it almost grates. They bring their A-game to the drama club scene despite all the contrivances required to get there. The film also features a strong supporting role for Tom Skerritt as a professor Audrey has her eye on, helping to sell one of the film's few harsh lessons (Peter Reigert also appears, but his character's purpose is far more conventional). As the film draws to a close, At Middleton shows an impressive bit of dramatic restraint, but even that doesn't dig at anything deeper. For a film about introspection and self-discovery, the film's pleasures are very surface-level.
Rarely does a piece of key art for a Blu-Ray or DVD so perfectly encapsulate everything I don't like about a film. The image, which features Andy Garcia smiling warmly into the camera lens while Farmiga throws her head back against him in a big laugh, kind of sums up pleasant but empty, right down to the useless italicization of only the actors' last names. It's reminiscent of all the stock photos of women laughing alone with salad that the internet likes to make fun of. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC and Dolby TrueHD 5.1, this is a very strong presentation across the board. Picture-wise, colors are bright and natural, fine detail is excellent, and I detected no untoward instances of banding or artifacting, although the film's black levels are a touch anemic in a couple of scenes. More than up to par for a digital production from 2013. Sound-wise, most of Middleton is dialogue, but there are a couple of sequences that stood out, such as a piano duet between Garcia and Farmiga in the music department, or the sound of crowds gathering around the school fountain. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Three bonus features grace the disc. The first is an audio commentary by director / co-writer Adam Rodgers, co-writer / producer Glenn German, and actor Andy Garcia. This is an average commentary, more authentically pleasant than the film, featuring the usual blend of production anecdotes and technical details about where in Washington State (my home state) the film was shot, budgetary constraints, time shortages, and other stories about the brisk 20-day shoot. Video extras include a surprisingly long outtake reel (11:09, HD), which includes a few gems, but could have been cut in half, and a music video (4:25, HD) by Garcia, set to photos from the production.
The disc opens with trailers for Enough Said (a much funnier comedy "for grown-ups" about kids leaving for college), Small Time, City Island, Jayne Mansfield's Car, and Snake and Mongoose. No trailer for At Middleton has been included.
There are people out there for whom At Middleton will be a solid rental, and although I'm hard on the film, I hope those people see it and enjoy it, because the film's worst crime is lacking depth. That said, it's an inessential movie that never really digs at anything deeper or more complex in their characters or the story, despite two lead actors who could've made a richer and more rewarding version of the same story. "Middleton" is unfortunately appropriate.
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