Unremarkable, though hardly unpleasant, the middlebrow middle-age romance At Middleton often plays like a forgotten trifle from the Golden Age of Hollywood studio filmmaking, distinguished more by its competence and affable performances than by any formal or thematic potency. Set over the course of a single day at the eponymous fictional college, the movie is centered on George (Andy Garcia) and Edith (Vera Farmiga), strangers who meet while accompanying their respective 18-year-olds on a campus tour.
The lightweight first 40 minutes—the movie’s strongest stretch—follow the two as they ditch their kids and flirt their way around Middleton’s lawns and student practice rooms. The flirting is chaste and inconsequential (both will return to their spouses within a few hours), coming across as a rare respite for two busy adults rather than the beginning of a relationship. However, at around the halfway point of the movie, director Adam Rodgers and his co-writer, Glenn German, expand their focus to include George and Edith’s children, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) and Audrey (Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa Farmiga), and take a left turn into character-study seriousness. Flirting gives way to close-up-heavy monologues about disappointment, and the movie loses much of its easygoing charm.
With its unobtrusive editing and sunny, TV-ready lighting, Rodgers’ workmanlike style is better suited to light comic rapport than drama, and a viewer may eventually start to wish the director had stuck to the limited scope of the movie’s first half. The later scenes’ use of clichéd romantic imagery—a screening of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, a slow-motion run through a fountain—dilutes the George-Edith relationship by taking away its specificity.
At first, At Middleton’s deliberate vagueness contributes to the movie’s breezy, old-studio vibe. Everything about Middleton, from its architecture to its name, is meant to evoke a generic Anycollege, USA. The dialogue’s references are equally broad, with mentions of Bach and Lewis Carroll; the only occasions when Rodgers and German display something like personal taste are the movie’s two references (one verbal, one visual) to little-known late-’80s alt-rockers Snatches Of Pink. However, this broadness becomes a liability once the movie starts pushing into drama, which depends on detail. Thinly sketched characters like George and Edith can be funny and charming, but it’s difficult to care about their emotional lives.