THE ART OF GETTING BY
I don't know what it says about me, but don't hold this fact against me: as of this writing I still have not read The Catcher In the Rye. It's no reflection on my teachers (I did learn about Shakespeare and Shaw) or me (I did read The Stranger in high school, just so you know).
Despite not having read it, I do know elements of the story and have even heard of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, and his war against "the phonies" in society. Now, throughout his cantankerous, misanthropic, reclusive life J.D. Salinger refused to sell the film rights to his novel. However, I imagine if it had been made into a film, it would look something like The Art of Getting By (formerly known as Homework) because writer/director Gavin Wiesen appears to have shamelessly taken a great deal of Holden Caulfield and how he sees the world and plugged it into this film.
George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) is your typical fatalistic/nihilistic teen, with his perpetual black overcoat and indie rock. He knows we will all die, so he takes this as his reason not to do any assignments at his elite prep school. Why do so if we're all going to die? Despite describing himself as a 'misanthrope', he appears to find a kindred spirit in Sally (Emma Roberts), who unlike him likes to go out, has a circle of friends, and appears to be a relatively stable girl despite having a hopeless lush slut of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser).
George's one real ability appears to be drawing (side note: why do angsty teenage boys always draw? I guess I never had angst in high school because I could barely do stick figures, but I digress), but even here he has no real interest other than to please himself. His teachers and especially his principal (Blair Underwood) fret about George, but they certainly allow him a great deal of leeway when it comes to how they handle his situation, right down to apparently letting him call all adults by their first names. This curious habit extends to George's mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather Harris (Jarlath Conroy). Yet I digress. As I've pointed out, George does love to draw. Basically blackmailed into being a guide for Career Day speakers, he finds a mentor of sorts with up-and-coming artist Dustin (Michael Angarano).
Dustin advises George to pursue Sally, but George decides not to, especially after an unofficial date on Valentine's Day she perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, asks him if he'd like to have sex with her. George is crushed by this request, seeing Sally as just another 'phony', so he locks himself in his room, playing the same song on his iPod and becoming more fatalistic. Eventually, he's given an ultimatum: either complete all the homework he's declined to do or he won't graduate.
After discovering the truth of his parent's finances, he attempts to go to Sally, but she has moved on to Dustin. George decides he must help his mother, so he goes and does his homework, still grieving in his heart over Sally, who is going backpacking around Europe with Dustin. Still, he manages to succeed, and we're left to wonder whether he can get the girl.
The Art of Getting By could have been a good movie, but it's cocooned in its own smugness. All the kids appeared a little too smart for this world, all the parents/adults were a little too dumb for it. Maybe it's a sign of rebellion and hipness for all the minors to call all the adults by their first names (and having seen some parents with their children, not entirely beyond the realm of possibility), but truth be told nothing in The Art of Getting By felt or sounded true.
I have a big problem with George's character. He is so in tune with Albert Camus I was surprised he didn't have a copy of The Stranger with him; he might have: George was reading a book from time to time but I couldn't make out the title. However, we need more than character sketches to have a fully-believable person. We never got an idea as to why he saw the world as hopeless, and we certainly never understand what George sees in Sally or vice-versa. His melancholy appears to spring from nothing: no reason is ever given for why George's world has turned to black, to quote a refrain.
He may be presented as an intellectual, but it takes more than taking a girl to see Louis Malle's Zazie Dans Le Métro to make you wise beyond your years.
Throughout The Art of Getting By, I kept thinking that I was watching a film based on the second draft of a story that had potential but kept getting in its own way by trying to be excessively clever. All this angst George and to a point, Sally, are suppose to have really comes from nowhere. Why did Sally take a shine to George or George to Sally? Wiesen never makes clear, and he certainly never makes clear why his teachers, who've been badly treated by George, would want to save him, besides being told he has 'potential'. Given how self-absorbed in his own wisdom George is, one would think the teachers would be thrilled to see him suspended, instead of having some Educational Intervention to get him to change his ways.
Herein lies The Art of Getting By's greatest flaw: George never comes off as a teen trying to make sense in a senseless world. Instead, he comes off as a moody whiner who holds everyone in contempt for not thinking the way he does. Highmore's performance does little to shift that view. I will give him extraordinary credit for having a thoroughly believable American accent, but through the film he maintained the same tone to his voice: never expressing any emotion other than slight confusion as to why the world was not as he thought it should be.
I got the sense that if he tried to express emotion with his voice, either by raising it in anger or cooing love to Sally, he would lose his accent and slip into his native British tones. One thing I will say is that Highmore gave as good a performance as he was directed to, and that he can sound American flawlessly. He definitely will give fellow Brit/moody actor Jamie Bell a run for his money should he decide to play American more often.
Roberts looked blank and unnatural in The Art of Getting By, showing almost a slight disinterest in the project. It may be unfair, but the film was reminiscent of another film of a needlessly-troubled artistic teen which has Emma Roberts (It's Kind of A Funny Story). In that film, she had some backstory to her and was allowed to be both funny and serious. Here, she's nothing but blank: even when trying to be a party girl she appears to be slightly bored. Having seen her in It's Kind of A Funny Story, I know she is capable of much more than what she did here, but I put that fault on the script and direction, which came from the same source. Her 'seduction' of Dustin is especially painful because if appears so forced and unnatural.
Angarano (filling in the Zach Galifianakis character from It's Kind of A Funny Story) fits only because, like George, he has a terrible smugness to his character. Side note: I'm not a big fan of modern/post-modern art and have held that almost everything past Picasso's Guernica is junk, but I digress. We're suppose to believe Dustin is perhaps the only adult Holden, I mean, George, sees as anything close to authentic (although in one scene George confesses he thinks Dustin is also a bit of a fraud), but there no hint that these two like each other, let alone are of the same mind. The invented love triangle never appears realistic because none of them play it as if it were real.
Finally, let me point out a technical flaw in The Art of Getting By. When Principal Martinson (the underused and curiously disinterested Underwood) has his close-ups in a scene with George, the camera is perfectly still. Whenever it's Highmore's close-ups in the same scene, the camera is jerking about, noticeably moving around.
The Art of Getting By has the potential to be a good story: a young fatalistic man discovering there is a reason to love and live thanks to a vivacious girl and supportive adults. However, the film as it stands is basically too smug, too overly-confident in its false insight into teenage agony and confusion to be anything more than an exercise in pseudo-intellectual posturing.
The best way I can describe The Art of Getting By? In a word: Phony.