Judge Clark Douglas is a graduate of the school of hard knocks. Well, more like gentle nudges.
One day can change everything.
"There are no wrong doors. All the world's a stage."
Facts of the Case
George Hartman (Andy Garcia, The Godfather: Part III) and Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) are single parents who share a common goal: they both want to convince their teenage children to attend the prestigious Middleton College. George's son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) seems to have a dismissive attitude towards the school, while Edith's daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring) is enthusiastic about the idea of studying under the esteemed Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt, Alien). While the kids go on their official tour, George and Edith start getting to know each other and begin a private tour of their own. Over the course of a single day, the two parents begin to discover that they have a great deal in common. Is this the start of a beautiful friendship…or even something more?
The Andy Garcia character in At Middleton is named George Hartman, and it just so happens that George is a heart surgeon. "Hartman? HEART-Man?" Edith scoffs.
"I like to keep things neat," George replies, which seems less a personal statement than a semi-apologetic admission by screenwriters Adam Rodgers (who also directed) and Glenn German. Indeed, the film has a habit of tying up all of its story threads with a tidy little bow—it's almost impossible not to notice just how well-oiled the plot machinery is.
Later, during a particularly emotional scene, Edith looks at George with tears in her eyes and says, "I thought you were supposed to fix people's hearts."
That's an almost unforgivably cheesy line, but here's the thing: somehow, it's actually rather moving, simply because Farmiga brings such heartbreaking fragility to her reading of the line. If it accomplishes nothing else, At Middleton is a demonstration of what a pair of exceptional actors can do with middling material. In one scene, George and Edith wander into a drama class and witness a couple of young, ambitious actors attempting to improvise their way through a scene. Both object to the way the young actors are depicting a married couple, so the teacher suggests that George and Edith step onstage and show everyone how it's done. The scene that follows is a magical bit of performance-within-a-performance ala the Naomi Watts audition scene in Mulholland Drive, and an apt metaphor for the film as a whole. Above all, the film serves as a showcase for a pair of old pros showing us how it's done.
The chemistry Garcia and Farmiga share is consistently terrific; they settle into a relaxed playfulness rather quickly and prove entirely convincing during moments of goofy slapstick and melodramatic sentiment. It's particularly good to see Garcia reminding us of what a good actor he can be. Farmiga has had her share of meaty, compelling roles in recent years, but Garcia has found himself trapped in a lot of junk. To be sure, At Middleton isn't going to win any awards, but at least it gives its lead actors the space they need to create rich, distinctive characters. Plus, I'm pleased to report that the movie isn't entirely predictable fluff—the conclusion opts for bittersweet, elegiac gracefulness rather than a forced fairy tale ending, and the story feels much stronger as a result.
Of course, things do get a bit wobbly whenever the film places its focus on the younger characters. Conrad and Audrey aren't particularly well-defined or compelling individuals, and their respective journeys towards personal enlightenment aren't half as interesting as those of their parents. In an attempt to beef these stories up, the filmmakers give each younger character an extended dramatic scene opposite a veteran character actor. Audrey shares a long lunch with a professor played by Tom Skerritt, and Conrad spends an evening with a college radio station manager played by Peter Riegart (Animal House). Both are meant to serve as profound moments for the youngsters, with the former learning that life won't hand her everything she wants on a silver platter and the latter discovering that maybe his ol' dad might have been right about the campus being a magical place. The only problem is that these scenes don't quite manage to overcome their obvious contrivances, so the dialogue actually feels as clunky as it is. Still, these plot strands definitely play a supporting role. When Farmiga and Garcia are onscreen, the film works.
At Middleton (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which does a beautiful job of highlighting the lush college campus on which the film was shot. Detail is superb in every scene, flesh tones are warm and natural, colors have a lot of pop and depth is impressive. The darker scenes never slip into murkiness, while blacks are deep and inky. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is simple but strong, with a sentimental score blending nicely with the dialogue and subtle sound design. Supplements include an audio commentary with Rodgers, German and Garcia, some outtakes and a music video highlighting a song by Garcia and Arturo Sandoval.
At Middleton may be soft and predictable, but it's also an undeniably likable flick boasting two exceptional lead performances. Worth a look for those seeking a tolerable rom-com for adults.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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