THE ART OF GETTING BY Review
"How did you end up here?" "You have issues." "Dude, you're sensitive." "Rule #4: Noodles." -- Actual lines of dialogue from the movie under consideration.
Beautifully polished, tremendously glossy, and absolutely meaningless, The Art of Getting By, known as Homework when it premiered at Sundance in January, could just as easily have been retitled "The Commerce of Faking Indie." Every line of dialogue rings hollow, every character is inauthentic, every performance is unconvincing.
But, damn, the movie sure looks good.
For that, all hail Ben Kutchins, director of photography, and his team. Kutchins recently shot Holy Rollers, a period drama set mostly in Brooklyn that was anything but glamorous. Here the setting moves (mostly) to the modern day Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the modestly upscale locations fairly glow with heavenly light. Except, that is, for a few occasions when they're out of focus, which we'll assume reflects artistic intent.
The actors look great, with sparkling eyes and even, unblemished skin tones, whether they're sitting in the back seat of a taxi cab at night or staring forlornly upon a moody daytime cityscape from an isolated empty rooftop. As George, the ostensible protagonist, Freddie Highmore does a lot of staring; sometimes his eyes glaze over as he stares into the middle distance, and sometimes he seems to be staring off-camera at the director, wondering what he's supposed to be doing in the scene, I suppose. It's a misbegotten performance.
Emma Roberts brings all of her budding star power to the role of Sally Howe, one of George's classmates at the tony Morgan Preparatory School. Emma takes a liking to George after he takes the rap for a minor offense she commits (smoking on school property), which, come to think of it, isn't so minor since it's grounds for suspension. The two become fast friends, although, as is evidently the fashion nowadays, the possibility of a romantic or sexual involvement is not broached.
But, then, what is it about either of them that is attractive, beyond their surface good looks? George is a callow youth whose actions are entirely, boringly predictable. His widely-known "schtick" is not doing his homework. (At various points, he claims to be depressed, uninterested, bored, a misanthrope, and obnoxious, all offered up as excuses for his frequently vacuous expression.) Somehow, he has managed to make it to his senior year without doing anything.
George is not, however, outwardly rebellious or otherwise known for anything other than not doing his homework, to the frustration of Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood) and his dedicated teachers, whose numbers include a bespectacled Alicia Silverstone. (Harris McElroy contributes a hilarious, if overplayed, bit as a scowling art instructor.) George's placid exterior masks flashes of intelligence and an outsized indulgence in self-centered ennui. His mother Vivian (Rita Wilson) and stepfather Jack (Sam Robards) are distracted by their own problems, which they try to keep from George.
Sally appears to have a brighter outlook on life, even though her father abandoned the family, and her mother (Elizabeth Reaser) is a sex pot. Sally's had boyfriends in the past and has popular friends in the present -- Zoe (Sasha Spielberg) and Will (Marcus Carl Franklin) -- but something draws her to George. We suspect it's the script, because there's no reason(s) presented to compel the relationship, not even the fact that they're both only children or preternaturally pretty.
To try and stir up the burning embers of the forestalled romance, enter struggling artist Dustin Heath (Michael Angarano), a graduate of the prep school who returns for Career Day. (He's the type of "struggling" artist who has not had his first gallery show, yet has no apparent difficulties in paying for a spacious studio with a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline.) He mumbles and looks cute, and it doesn't take an experienced flight navigator to know where the story will lead.
Gavin Wiesen wrote and directed. Visually, the direction is serviceable, straightforward and unsurprising. In similar manner, the dialogue dispenses facts and extensive background notes without hesitation, as though the movie was a biographical profile show. The overall narrative thrust is incredibly familiar, typified by the well-worn, clumsily-constructed romantic triangle.
The movie feels like Wiesen is dealing from an off-the-shelf deck of indie romantic comedy cards. We have the platonic friends who secretly yearn for one another, the sexy stranger, the pop culture references, the off-beat supporting players, the businessman harboring a secret, the suddenly concerned adults, and the dawning realization that we've seen all this before.
Cooking from an old recipe can produce a very fine meal if fresh ingredients are used and a little imagination applied. The Art of Getting By serves up leftovers that have gone stale.
The Art of Getting By opens today in more than 600 theaters across the U.S. Check the official site for more information.
The Art of Getting By
- Gavin Wiesen
- Gavin Wiesen
- Freddie Highmore
- Emma Roberts
- Sasha Spielberg
- Marcus Carl Franklin