by Tony Dayoub
Opening today at Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, At Middleton has a whiff of vanity project as it concerns its star, Andy Garcia. The little seen Cuban American actor has long deserved stronger vehicles for his talent than the gangster parts he often plays in movies like those of the Ocean's series. But he's usually had to seek the kind of roles that can afford him a good stretch himself, which can often lead to a bit of blindness to the projects' flaws. At Middleton is just one of those films, an indie produced by Garcia that showcases his rarely seen understated side in a romantic comedy lensed and scored by frequent collaborators Emmanuel Kadosh (The Lost City) and Arturo Sandoval (For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story), respectively.
Garcia plays George Hartman, a cardiologist (the first of many groaners that call attention to themselves) taking his too-laidback son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) on a tour of Middleton College. There he meets cute with Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga) also on the tour with her ambitious daughter Audrey (younger sister Taissa Farmiga). Slowly, the daffy Edith gets the mild-mannered George to loosen up as they decide to abandon their high-strung kids and the tour to recapture their youth in their own private excursion around Middleton's beautiful campus. Meanwhile, the kids are left to face themselves and their flaws for what may be their first time free of parental expectations.
One can understand why At Middleton's genteel premise would attract Garcia. The usually macho dramatic actor gets a chance to show his comedic chops as the straitlaced George. The game Farmiga is a perfect comedic foil, and the chemistry between the two is the strongest aspect of At Middleton. But the overscored movie feels manipulative at times as it sets up contrivance after contrivance in order to reveal the inner life of these otherwise reserved characters. At Middleton's high point is a surprisingly moving scene in which the two are caught spying on a drama class and soon find themselves performing a bit of revelatory improv as a married couple onstage for its students. But it's negated by the movie's low point, a predictable slapstick sequence where the parents light up with two of Middleton's students in their dorm room.
At Middleton is most problematic early on as it tries to set up its contrived, cliche premise by mechanically moving its players around like chess pieces on its formulaic board. Like Chekhov's gun, every instance of idle, if colorful, dialogue is sure to take on greater meaning (i.e. the irony of Edith buying a high quantity of apples at the start of the tour because she "heard they keep the doctor away." Oy vey!). But Garcia and Farmiga continually strive to raise their performance above the weak material. This often makes for a fascinating if frustrating glimpse at two wonderful performers as they first spar then slowly come together with a balletic virtuosity. At Middleton may not be the comeback Garcia was hoping for, but it's a bittersweet step in the right direction.