George (Freddie Highmore) is a bright and talented high school slacker who would rather be sketching in his text books during class than studying and doing homework. He has been able to coast along during his school career and managed to just get by. However, his principal (Blaire Underwood) and all of his teachers have had enough with George refusing to fulfill his real potential. They decide, in order to graduate, he must do a whole year’s worth of assignments and homework in just three weeks in “The Art of Getting By.”
Newbie director-writer Gavin Wiesen creates a good-natured, very clichéd coming-of-age story that benefits most from its cast headed by the always good Freddie Highmore (with an inexplicable Justin Bieber haircut). George is a fatalistic young man on the brink of graduating high school until his slacker past catches up with him when his principal and teachers demand he turn in the year’s worth of assignments. Typically, George tries to figure a way around it all.
Things change for George when he covers for another student, Sally (Emma Roberts), who is about to be caught smoking. George knows that smoking on school grounds calls for immediate suspension when he steps in. His bad-boy persona, though, saves the day and it is just another trip to the principal’s office for George. Sally quietly thanks him and the two become kindred spirits as he teaches Sally the finer points of slackerdom – like skipping school and not get caught.
George will need a catalyst of change if he is to graduate school and that comes in the form of his domineering stepfather, Jack (Sam Robards). While on one of his school-skipping excursions with Sally, he spots Jack going in to a luncheonette. What makes George suspicious is that the lunch counter is on the opposite side of town from Jack’s office. His suspicions are founded and, when he realizes that his mother, Vivian (Rita Wilson, in a good mom performance), is facing divorce and, worse, bankruptcy because of her husband bad financial decisions. This is just the tonic George needs to pull up his bootstraps and set his life straight.
Nothing about “The Art of Getting By” sparks any sense of originality. The troubled-young-man story has been done before but Freddie Highmore (despite the Bieber-do) makes you root for George, which is easy since you know exactly what will happen in the end. Emma Roberts’s Sally is just window dressing as the potential love interest and friend for George. Michael Angarano, as an artist recruited to talk about his art at George’s school, Dustin, represents the wedge that comes between George and Sally. Again, not original and the love triangle aspect is rather silly.
New York City is the backdrop for the story and the city looks good through the lens of cinematographer Ben Kutchins’s camera. Other techs are fine. “The Art of Getting By,” while not original in any sense, represents a calling card for filmmaker Wiesen that could open a door or two for the director (but not the writer). I give it a positive C+.
After reading the quote about living alone, dying alone and everything else being illusion, Manhattan senior high school student George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") goes into a depression over his own mortality and decides that schoolwork is meaningless. Even after he meets pretty, popular Sally Howe (Emma Roberts, "Scream 4"), who is clearly interested in him, George is in a state of paralysis in "The Art of Getting By."
Just what we needed, another coming of age film set in a Manhattan prep school buoyed by an alt rock soundtrack. If the film is at all autobiographical, maybe writer/director Gavin Wiesen is remembering seeing 2008's "The Wackness," where an unpopular kid at a Manhattan prep school whose parents are undergoing financial difficulties meets the girl of his dreams with a highly improper parent or 2006's "Art School Confidential," where the protagonist's deluded sense of self nearly derails him, all, of course, while chasing the girl of his dreams. Then toss in a little Upper East Side Woody Allen of art house theaters and ethnic restaurants. Freddie Highmore has been a more-than-dependable child star, but in his first 'adult' role he doesn't quite engage and Emma Roberts is in her twelth film since 2006's "Aquamarine" (she had tiny roles in some earlier films) with nary a one rating a fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. "The Art of Getting By" isn't about to change that trajectory.
And so George never does homework, ending up frequently in the office of Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood, TV's 'L.A. Law,' 'The New Adventures of Old Christine'), who seems to have unwarranted affection for the boy. He's flippant in art class, drawing a caricature of his teacher, Harris McElroy (Jarlath Conroy, "True Grit's" undertaker). His English teacher, Ms. Herman (Alicia "Clueless" Silverstone, reminding us what a charming screen presence she can have), is thrilled by his observations on 'The Mayor of Casterbridge,' but not by his failure to turn in his thesis. Principal Martinson gives George the choice of hosting a visiting alumni or expulsion and George ends up with Dustin (Michael Angarano, "Snow Angels," too young for a cynical alumni), a Brooklyn artist who befriends him. Meanwhile, George returns to his mother (Rita Wilson, "It's Complicated") and stepfather's (Sam Robards, TV's 'Gossip Girl') stylish Manhattan apartment to discover the lights out. Following stepdad, he figures out that his income has been lost.
Then there is Sally, a pretty girl who takes a keen interest when George takes the fall for her smoking on school property. She lives in an even more splendid apartment with her mother (Elizabeth Reaser, Edward's 'mom' in the "Twilight" series), an alcoholic nymphomaniac who had her at sixteen with a truck driver and who has no visible means of support. When George continually fails to pick up on her signals, including a blatant request to sleep with her on Valentine's Day, Sally picks up with Dustin. Then George is faced with not graduating and given one last chance - by completing a year's worth of work in the academic year's remaining weeks.
"The Art of Getting By" is literally too cool for school and very little of it feels real. Of course, following a New Year's Eve disaster with a daytime exterior with trees in bud before advancing to Valentine's Day doesn't help with belief suspension. There is one good laugh in the film (George describing a stint spent in a tiny Tokyo hotel room as being 'like a veal') and one bit of relatable teenage melodrama (after blowing his opportunity with Sally, George plays Leonard Cohen's "Winter Lady" for 24 hours straight). But there's no actual caring about any of these people, with the possible exception of George's distraught but supportive mom.
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