"At Middleton," the new romantic comedy starring Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia as strangers who collide during a campus tour with their college-bound kids, is like a feckless flirtation.
I use the word "feckless" because it keeps popping up in the film, an ongoing joke starting with a crossword puzzle. Feckless may be a hard word to make funny, ahem, but it does come in handy in describing a slight film that mostly squanders its fine cast on frothy banter and silly escapades. Borrowed bikes and shared bongs are typical of the adults' risky business after they escape the tour.
Garcia and Farmiga have such an easy, natural chemistry that their on-screen sparkle helps mitigate the film's weaknesses. At others times, it serves to underscore what might have been. It's a feckless conundrum.
Director Adam Rodgers' own college tour some years ago with his dad inspired the script he co-wrote with Glenn German. That time, the son rather than the father was spirited away for the day. Shifting the experience of escape to the parents, which implies the notion of temporarily shedding adult responsibilities, makes up the bones of the story. What is lacking is the meat.
Edith (Farmiga) is the free-spirited mom. Audrey is her serious, literary-minded daughter, nicely played by Farmiga's real-life sister Taissa ("American Horror Story"), who shares Vera's luminous presence on screen. George (Garcia) is a cardiac surgeon, nattily uptight in his crisp white shirt and bow tie. He's with his reluctant son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco).
Audrey's determined to go to Middleton; her literary inspiration Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt) is a professor there. Justin has his hopes on Yale. Neither is on the best terms with their parents. That's the nut of the conflict in the kids' lives.
For the parents, not surprisingly, it's a bit more complicated, which could have made for some interesting moments. There is one — fittingly in an acting class they stumble on — in which the dialogue gets smarter and steps away from stating the obvious. As a result, unexpected emotions surface. More often, George and Edith are left to linger in cliches.
Rodgers, making his feature-directing debut, does seem to understand what he has in Farmiga and Garcia, letting his actors run with what they've been given. And the location is stunning. Rodgers has a better eye than ear.
Director of photography Emmanuel Kadosh is blessed with picture-perfect Pacific Northwest blue skies and beautiful old campus buildings at Gonzaga University and Washington State University to use as backdrops. And the jazzy score by Arturo Sandoval is a very nice touch, the elements combining to bring a real warmth to the film.
But any real life is a result of Farmiga and Garcia's appeal.
The actress is always an excellent choice to play a smart, assertive, unconventional woman, as she did so well in Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" as George Clooney's lover and equal. The role earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination. She brings an endearing spunkiness to Edith that makes it easy to believe an uptight surgeon might fall a little in love for a moment.
Meanwhile, Garcia is such a charmer, using that self-deprecating smile to great effect opposite Farmiga. Though a tough guy role in "The Godfather Part III" earned the actor his Oscar nomination, it seems he's found his sweet spot in playing more decent sorts. The indie surprise of 2009's "City Island" and his role as a blue-collar patriarch with secret artistic dreams felt like a turning point.
Together, Garcia and Farmiga are a sweetheart couple whose mild flirtation makes the time spent "At Middleton" bearable. With a stronger script, it might have turned into a beautiful day.
MPAA rating: R for drug use and brief sexuality.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas West Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena