Contemporary American movies have many admirable qualities — energy, eye-popping special effects, even an occasional dab of social significance — along with many that are not so admirable. But wit is one element that’s largely missing from the tapestry. This wasn’t always the case. In an earlier era when gifted writers flocked to Hollywood, movies like The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib, as well as later examples Hud and Network, were propelled by steady bursts of sparkling verbiage. Lately, however, witty dialogue has become almost extinct, which is one of the reasons that the new indie film At Middleton comes as such a welcome surprise.
Considerable credit goes to writers Adam Rodgers and Glenn German. Rodgers also directed the film skillfully, but the picture’s pleasures begin with the script. This understated love story that takes place over the course of a single day may not be high-powered enough to ignite the box office, but it deserves to be savored by viewers longing for literate conversation.
Literacy is an especially valuable quality in a film set entirely on a college campus. George (Andy Garcia) has brought his son to take a college tour at a school with an idyllic country setting. (It looks like a New England college but was actually shot mainly at Gonzaga College in Washington state.) As they begin the tour, George is distracted by Edith (Vera Farmiga), an outspoken woman who has her daughter in tow. Before long, George and Edith leave the tour and explore the campus on their own. The film spends a little time with the two kids and their burgeoning friendship, but most of it follows George and Edith on their ramble. Both of them are married, but as they spend more time together, first squabbling and then disclosing some of their secrets, their connection deepens.
Their differences both repel and attract. George is a cardiac surgeon who’s lived cautiously, while Edith is more of a live wire. Their sparring matches are shrewdly written, and yet their high-spirited exchanges gradually give way to more melancholy revelations. At one point they sneak into a drama class and are asked to improvise a scene about marriage, which indirectly and eloquently exposes the deep dissatisfactions that George and Edith have learned to endure. Even as the film turns more serious, it never abandons its wicked sense of humor.
Of course sparkling dialogue would count for little without two actors to deliver it expertly. Garcia (who is also one of the producers of the film) is generally cast in more serious roles, but he revealed a gift for comedy in City Island a few years ago, and he revisits that terrain rewardingly here. Farmiga is marvelous. With the exception of Up in the Air, she also has been cast most often in darker roles, so it’s a pleasure to discover her flair for high comedy.
Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, plays her daughter, Audrey, and she also pairs up well with Spencer Lofranco as George’s son, Conrad. All of the supporting performances help; there are neat cameos from Tom Skerritt as a pompous linguistics professor and Peter Riegert as a scrappy radio deejay.
With his feature debut, Rodgers also demonstrates a good eye for visual composition. The college atmosphere seems believably seductive to both parents and teenagers. The subtle musical score by Arturo Sandoval (whom Garcia portrayed in an HBO movie) adds to the film’s impact. This movie sneaks up on you, gradually moving beyond comedy to a mournful sense of lost possibilities. The movie’s last line is a knockout. “Let’s take the long way home,” George tells his son as they drive away from the campus. You’ll have to see the movie to appreciate the sting in those few simple words.
Cast: Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Nicholas Braun, Tom Skerritt, Peter Riegert
Director: Adam Rodgers
Screenwriters: Adam Rodgers, Glenn German
Producers: Andy Garcia, Glenn German, Sig Libowitz
Executive producer: Sonya Lunsford
Director of photography: Emmanuel Kadosh
Production designer: Vincent DeFelice
Costume designer: Lisa Caryl-Vukas
Editor: Suzy Elmiger
Music: Arturo Sandoval
Rated R, 100 minutes