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Our review of The Art of Getting By, published December 30th, 2011, is also available.
The toughest lesson is love.
"I'm allergic to hormones."
Facts of the Case
George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland) is a high school senior experiencing something of an existential crisis. He's completely lost his will to complete his assignments, has begun to embrace nihilism and no longer sees the point in striving to do anything in life. This baffles his mother (Rita Wilson, It's Complicated) and principal (Blair Underwood, Dirty Sexy Money), and their efforts to aid George prove fruitless. However, when George makes a connection with the lovely Sally Howe (Emma Roberts, It's Kind of a Funny Story), he begins to wonder whether certain things might be worth pursuing.
The most significant problem with The Art of Getting By is that it's built around an exceptionally irritating central character. George Zinavoy is meant to be a sympathetic figure; a humorously disaffected young man struggling with a wide array of relatable angst. He's a 21st-Century Benjamin Braddock and a tortured soul who supposedly sees the artifice of the world with more clarity than the peers and authority figures in his life. Unfortunately, as depicted by Freddie Highmore, George comes across as nothing more than an insufferable little prick.
George has decided that caring about anything is basically a waste of time, a principle that also extends to the relationships in his life. He treats his parents with casual cruelty when they attempt to approach him about his declining grades and scoffs at his teachers with condescending superiority. When he isn't behaving like a jerk, he is prone to engaging in eyeroll-inducing pretension. His world-weary excuses for his behavior ("I don't fear death. I fear life.") ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but the film expects us to take George seriously. That might have been a lot easier if he seemed more like a genuinely tormented soul and less like a lazy twit with a penchant for intellectual posturing.
A large part of this comes from Highmore, who is probably best-known as the adorable moppet in well-regarded family films like Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Lately, he seems to have added "arrogant, privileged teen who learns an important lesson" to his bag of tricks, as his role here isn't a million miles removed from his turn in Master Harold and the Boys. There's a smug grin which accompanies many of his proclamations; a knowing twinkle which haughtily suggests he's getting away with something. It's a wonder the adults in his life are as tolerant of him as they are; they patiently attempt to get through to him until his facade finally cracks (though there are moments when they look as if they're trying desperately not to slap him).
Thankfully, The Art of Getting By eventually sets out to teach George a lesson. Alas, instead of the humbling, merciless storm of comeuppance George seems to have set himself up for, he's given a warm fantasy that proves nearly as grating as George's unconvincing fatalism. As soon as George starts to care about life just a little bit, everything starts to turn around for him. Suddenly, his relationship with his mother (which had seemed almost irreparably damaged) is just fine. Suddenly, he's not flunking out of school despite the fact that he missed an entire year's worth of homework. Suddenly, a romantic relationship that he casually threw away is restored.
That last item is the most problematic, as George's girlfriend (played with convincing warmth by Emma Roberts) is treated as a plot device rather than as a human being. After George and Sally begin to grow close, she confesses that she'd be interested in sleeping with him. George doesn't respond, and she sheepishly retracts the offer and admits that she'd been foolish for suggesting it. George then abruptly tells Sally he doesn't want to see her anymore and cuts off communication with her. In real life, that's a move you don't come back from. In The Art of Getting By, Sally is eager to run back into George's arms as soon as he seems mildly interested again. Sally isn't a real teen; she's a fantasy figure used as a prop in George's life lesson.
The Art of Getting By (Blu-ray) offers a perfectly satisfactory 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The film benefits from solid detail throughout, though the low-rent look of the flick doesn't make it an ideal candidate for the hi-def treatment. Still, blacks are satisfactorily deep and the soft color palette is easy on the eyes. Flesh tones are warm and natural; shadow delineation is consistently impressive. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also sufficient, spotlighting crisp, clean dialogue and a handful of weepy indie songs (the soundtrack pushes the film into conventional coming-of-age indie flick territory on quite a few occasions). Sound design is minimal and never makes a significant impression. The primary supplement is a commentary track from director Gavin Wisen (who reveals that the film is semi-autobiographical, which is unsurprising given that this is one of those films too dull to be anything other than deeply personal), several brief, disposable featurettes ("New York Side of Life," "On Young Love," "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Freddie Highmore" and "HBO First Look: The Making of The Art of Getting By") and a trailer.
Even with a brief running time of 83 minutes, The Art of Getting By is a chore to get through. A potentially compelling story is undone by the irritating lead character and a series of trite, unconvincing life lessons.
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