Long after many another serviceable movie premise has gone to its grave, the brief encounter will live and be well.
Talk about an unbeatable package: Nothing more urgently captures the disappointment of lives congealed by routine than does the sudden midlife romance; nothing so pointedly speaks to the undying desire for completion by another who understands and accepts us as no one else does; nothing so completely resounds with the fantasy of escape. And nothing so neatly contains all that unruly desire within the 11th-hour return to common sense and responsible self-sacrifice.
At Middleton, a deft little bonbon squirreled away in the dumping ground of January releases, is not the first to frame this premise in the watershed moment of departure for college. Like The Kids Are All Right, Admission and last year's Enough Said, the movie brings renewed life and libido, with all the attendant pleasures and dangers, to two unhappy middle-aged strangers.
On paper, George (Andy Garcia) and Edith (Vera Farmiga) seem unlikely to mesh. He's a cardiac surgeon and bona fide stiff, all tan chinos and bow tie; she's a free spirit with a tongue pickled in vinegar.
What they share, though, is that old change-of-life panic, plus the growing recognition that they have lost touch with the offspring each has brought to tour the kind of sun-dappled liberal arts campus that lends itself to creative release.
Symmetries abound. Like George, Edith's daughter Audrey (played by Farmiga's sister Taissa) needs to lighten up. Like Edith, George's son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) needs to free himself from constraint and get on with his thing. The kids get up to some stuff, but the movie's energies pulse chiefly in their elders' rite of passage.
George allows Edith to pry him loose from a terminally boring college tour and lead him on a not terribly wild ride around campus. Bikes are ridden, panoramic views savored, prissy parents taken down a notch or five. Then comes a visit to a drama class, where George and Edith quit pussyfooting around and lay their cards of quiet misery and yearning on the table.
At Middleton has few fresh insights to offer about that heart-in-mouth moment when parents wake up to the fact that 18 years of busy devotion to their children are about to be dismantled, and they're going to have to craft new lives again — especially if, like George and Edith, they're marooned in marriages that have run out of steam.
Still, director Adam Rodgers, who co-wrote the lively screenplay with producer Glenn German, carries us through his characters' enlightenment with a sprightly touch. The movie is a smooth ensemble piece, enlivened by brief turns from the great Peter Riegert as a wacked-out campus radio DJ and Tom Skerritt as a guru professor who recalibrates Audrey's priorities in the direction of fun.
But though it's fun to watch Garcia let out his inner goofball, the jewels in the crown of At Middleton are the dynamic sisters Farmiga. With their glittering sapphire eyes and elevated cheekbones, they look like medieval religious icons, but neither is a still life. They can do sad or overwrought or frosty on demand, but the movie brings out the screwball leading ladies in both.
To see the elastic Vera, whose 2004 breakthrough as a junkie housewife in Debra Granik's Down to the Bone locked her into mostly tragic or forbidding roles, fling herself about with deceptive abandon — then settle into rue and regret without missing a beat — is joy enough to cruise us happily toward an ending we can see coming a mile off.