REVIEW: The Art of Getting By Barely Masters the Art of Perfunctory Teen Romance
A friend once told me that his gold standard for new acquaintances involved the Leonard Cohen song "Anthem." "There is a crack, a crack in everything," the song goes. "That's how the light gets in." He applied it as a kind of authenticity test, because -- pace Mr. Cohen -- there are people out there who appear to lack the crack, whether it never fully formed or has been willfully spackled shut. There are films that lack it, too, some more ironically than others. Watching The Art of Getting By, the story of a singular teenager told in oppressively uniform terms, I was reminded of my friend's judgment of a man I was seeing: No crack, no sir.
George (Freddie Highmore) is a high-school senior on the Upper East Side of New York City too distracted by his own mortality to trifle with trigonometry. He's less a character than a series of declarations about himself ("Teflon slacker," "misanthrope"), and early on I hoped George might possess a self-awareness that would carry the film someplace new. But in contrast with the recent Submarine, a study of adolescent affectation that incorporated its subject into the style of telling, it's hard to determine who's in control here, and what they might have to say. First-time writer and director Gavin Wiesen presents George as a lost boy biding his time as an archetype -- an overcoat-clad persona in need of a self -- but the film itself is too synthetic to manage a meaningful distinction between the two predicaments.
Indulged by his teachers (including one played by Alicia Silverstone) and gruff-love principal (Blair Underwood), George has doodled his way through high school and is about to graduate with a textbook full of pop-gothic pen art instead of a diploma. He has skated by on charisma that seems contained by the world of the film; we see its effects without sharing in them. He's the slacker-savant whistle that only institutional authority figures and enlightened cute girls can hear, which means that classmate Sally (Emma Roberts) trains her sloe eyes on him after he does her a solid, deciding that he's worth her time. Roberts plays a slight variation on the troubled, grown-too-soon Manhattan girl she appeared to be in It's Kind Of A Funny Story: Appealing beyond her years, quick with a sassy comeback, and reflective of the image of the boy crushing on her to the point of self-obliteration.
The two strike up a friendship devoid of any romantic tension but overflowing with pop songs and art-fag references. In theory the casting could have worked: Highmore looks his two years younger than Roberts and then some, and the visual contrast between the geeky loner and the misunderstood, more experienced beauty is a classic one. But Highmore, his beady blue eyes making perpetual strange, his British accent threatening to abscond with every vowel, is not up to the role of a complicated nerd already too disappointed with life to share himself with the world. The insipid quality of the writing strands both characters in narrative limbo; trapped in the airtight mold of their coming-of-age avatars, they release no light and they take none in. It's a measure of the film's glazed dullness that when the "What's happening here" crisis in their friendship arrived, it was complete news to me, despite being a dilemma at least as old as the hills Meg Ryan has disappeared over.
I found myself forgetting The Art of Getting By as it unfolded, as though the Looney Tunes art department were two steps behind the characters, rolling up the scenery like so much carpeting. George cozies up to a guest speaker in his art class, a hipster leprechaun (Michael Angarano) with a loft in Brooklyn where he paints, mentors teenage boys, and gives in to his lust for their platonic girlfriends. Side plots with both George's floundering parents (Rita Wilson and Sam Robards) and Sally's suggestible, way-too-single mom (Elizabeth Reaser) are uninspired filler with flimsy resolutions. When an unpersuasively heartbroken George accepts the challenge to catch up on a year's schooling two weeks before graduation, Wiesen cues a climactic homework montage of George painting, writing, and problem-solving his way to self-actualization. The glimpses of algebraic equation struck me as the only part of this wearyingly dull film that could in any sense be called true.