If The Art of Getting By feels strangely familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen any number of movies just like it -- but better. It falls squarely into a cinematic subgenre sometimes known as Angry Young Man films. These are movies about charming but frustrated guys who are creative, flamboyant, and too smart for their own good. The hero is always wise beyond his years, and his desires are always lofty for a high school kid; instead of driving sports cars and banging cheerleaders, he’d rather make a pilgrimage to the home of Marcel Proust, or meet a shy but bewitching girl in a Parisian cafe. The hero is also usually rude, short-sighted, and depressed, though -- at least until he finds something or other in the story (usually a girl) to help him grow up, get some perspective, and hopefully overcome his adolescent narcissism. If this premise sounds appealing, by all means, go watch A Little Romance, Rushmore, Submarine, or even Harold and Maude. But definitely don’t bother seeing The Art of Getting By.
The movie stars Freddie Highmore (who made a splash when he was 12 in movies like Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as high school senior George Zinavoy. George is a gifted artist, but lacks inspiration. This is because he has recently come to terms with his own mortality, throwing him into an existential funk -- a “What does it all mean?!” kind of thing. Of course, this changes when he meets a pretty girl, the thoroughly adequate Sally Howe (Emma Roberts). She too has experienced the mind-blowing teenage revelation that her parents are not the ideal she may have imagined them to be as a child. And though she reacts with much less outright apathy, whining, and disrespect than George does at the adults in their lives for having the audacity to not be perfect, the two do discover that they are kindred spirits. But George lacks the nerve to confess to Sally that he loves her, and he still can’t bring himself to do his homework -- or react without outright contempt when asked to do something other than listen to sad music on his bed. This puts him at risk of getting expelled, as well as losing Sally to his twentysomething artist mentor, Dustin (Michael Angarano).
There’s nothing wrong with making a movie that falls into a tradition, and the Angry Young Man tradition is as good as any. However, there is something wrong with making a crappy, boilerplate version of a movie that’s been done already. You can forgive a film for being kind of generic if it still wins you over with charm, but nothing and nobody in The Art of Getting By is charming (except, ironically, for Michael Angarano, who is supposed to be kind of douchey yet ends up being the only charismatic presence in the whole thing). From the very first scene, a forced shaky-cam effect attempts to insert an indie, homemade feeling into a canned, factory-farmed project. Peripheral characters like parents and teachers are handed ridiculously obtuse lines, full of cringe-worthy exposition that’s never backed up by anything we actually see onscreen (“George, I thought you had the most potential of anyone in this class!”). And it’s lucky for Freddie Highmore that we already know full well what a talented actor he is, because otherwise this is the kind of role that could sink a career.
The key to carrying the lead in an Angry Young Man movie is that you have to be magnetic enough to keep us rooting for you, even before your character learns his lessons and improves his attitude. But with a face that reads awkwardly at best, and a performance that’s too reticent to reach out to the audience, Highmore’s portrayal of George simply seems petulant and conceited -- and you definitely never want to see him make a bold play for the girl. He’s only 19 here, though, and one can’t blame him for trying his hand at a movie about being on the cusp of adulthood. Maybe Highmore just isn’t the right kind of actor to play the romantic leading man; he’d likely be more suited to some more cerebral, method-style fare, where instead of being asked to play out a teen opera, he could be all up in his head. Regardless, all his talents work against him here, in a movie that’s bland and uninspired in the first place.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: If The Art of Getting By feels strangely familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen any number of movies just like it -- but better. It falls squarely into a cinematic subgenre sometimes known as Angry Young Man films. These are movies about charming but… (more)