Mark Reviews Movies

The Art of Getting By


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gavin Wiesen

Cast: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Rita Wilson, Blair Underwood, Sam Robards

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking and partying)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 6/17/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 16, 2011

"I'm obnoxious," says George (Freddie Highmore) late into The Art of Getting By; "I'm deeply disrespectful."  This is true, but that's not what makes him so irritating. Comparatively, those are some of his more commendable traits.

As conceived by writer/director Gavin Wiesen, George is an indistinct representation of late-teenage melancholy and rebellion. He sits in the cafeteria reading Albert Camus while the rest of his classmates socialize. His philosophy of life is summed up immediately in narration: Of all the people ever born in the history of humankind, "none of them have made it."  "Sixty million people die a year," he goes on to cheer himself up, and while everyone in his class is trying to figure out what college they'll be attending, he realizes that none of it matters. He's just going to die eventually, and he'll be alone when it happens.

His nihilism is dull from the offset. It establishes him as the ultimate kind of passive protagonist. It isn't just a case of George letting things happen to him; he lets things not happen.

George attends a classy prep school in New York City. Senior year has arrived, and his mother (Rita Wilson) is worried that his slumping grades, resulting from his newfound outlook on the pointlessness of life, will prevent him from getting into a decent college. From there, it's a downward spiral—no good job, living at home, and generally bringing down whatever room he happens to be occupying.

Apart from the fretful mother, Wiesen populates his movie with a smorgasbord of clichéd ancillary characters. There's the strict step-father (Sam Robards), who hypocritically demands that George get his act together while trying to hide the fact that his own life is in freefall.

There's the friendly but stern principal (Blair Underwood), whom George addresses by first name and who, in saying the phrase so many times, doesn't seem to know what a "last chance" actually is (i.e., your grades are low, this is your last chance; smoking on campus is an offense that means instant expulsion, but we'll let it slide; seriously, you're still failing all your classes with only three weeks left, but there's another option). There's the eccentric art teacher (Jarlath Conroy) who insists the kid has talent but nothing to say, the unsympathetic math teacher (Ann Dowd) who doubts George's excuse that he didn't do his homework because he was depressed by the realization of his own mortality, and the English teacher (Alicia Silverstone) who sees so much unfulfilled potential in her laziest student.

There's also, of course, the girl, with "the" pronounced with the long vowel sound. She's Sally (Emma Roberts), a fairly popular person at the school. They meet when George takes the fall for her smoking on the roof from a particularly unobservant teacher. Soon enough, he's hobnobbing with her friends, drawing a design for an invitation to a party at a club (Wholly a side note but are we to believe that not a single bar or club in the city asks for identification before serving alcohol to their clearly underage patrons?), and playing harder-to-get against Sally's back-and-forth friendly/flirtatious self.

The tension in their relationship arises from the fact that, under the requirements of the script, they are supposed to be together (One character even says as much) but are not. The reason is mainly based on their ill-defined characterizations, though that doesn't prevent Wiesen from tossing in some further complications to aid in their romantic separation. It begins when Sally suggests they have sex and then says the idea was a joke, which leads to George becoming annoyed with her (He calls her a "hussy," which eventually becomes a warped term of endearment for her). It's then that we learn the real reason for introducing Dustin (Michael Angarano), a 20-something aspiring artist who takes George under his wing for three scenes. He's the one who states that George and Emma should be together, so of course, he becomes a snag to keep them apart for a little longer.

Just as simply as George's darkest thoughts are alleviated by the presence of a cute, new blonde friend, the foreshadowed problems of The Art of Getting By predictably pile up. Facing a real final ultimatum at school, the loss of the girl he might really like, and the collapse of his dysfunctional family, we're tempted to jokingly wonder, "Could things get any worse?"  That is until a character beats us to it and actually says, "It gets worse."

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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