Well, you can’t complain he doesn’t warn you. Early on in this affected Wes Anderson clone about a precocious prep school misfit who attempts his first romance while struggling toward graduation, protagonist George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) remarks to one of his long-suffering teachers who’s urging him to match style with some substance in his painting, “I have nothing to say.” Unfortunately, he proceeds to say it for nearly an hour and a half.
Zinavoy, whom writer-director Gavin Wiesen intends to be yet another modern-day Holden Caulfield, is a student suffering from acute senioritis at a NYC prep school who literally does no work, although Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood) warns him of the consequences. Instead the loner strikes up a relationship with in-girl classmate Sally Howe (Emma Roberts) and with a painter alum, Dustin (Michael Angarano), eventually introducing them in what proves a major misstep. Sally’s hotsy mother (Elisabeth Reaser) and her gaggle of with-it friends also get into the act. Meanwhile troubles escalate at home as George’s clingy mother Vivian (Rita Wilson) tries to encourage him and he finds out a secret about his stepfather Jack (Sam Robards), which turns out to be a revelation we’ve seen about other cinema dads before.
Nothing about “The Art of Getting By” rings true. Like so many movies before it, the picture wants desperately to be a contemporary “Catcher in the Rye,” but like most of those predecessors comes off as a poor imitation of it instead. The writing—particularly the protagonist’s narration but the dialogue as well—is precious, sounding precisely like stuff rattling off a word processor rather than coming out of any human mouth. And the plot turns are both predictable and incredible. The biggest of them involves Martinson’s ultimatum to George that if he wants to graduate, he has to complete a full year’s coursework in the remaining three weeks of term—so we get a montage of him scribbling away to meet the deadline. We know what the outcome of that will be, and also who will show up at the close to end things on an upbeat note. It all reeks of Screenwriting 101 phoniness.
And while nobody could do much with Wiesen’s script, which he’s directed nondescriptly, neither gawky, nervous Highmore nor supposedly sophisticated Roberts manages to make their characters more than authorial contrivances. Angarano brings some interest to the supportive but insecure artist, although he tends to overdo things. The rest of the cast add little to the mix.
And Alec Puro’s guitar-strumming score bursts into the proceedings at the most obvious moments, trying desperately to get us to feel things the action on screen fails to convey effectively.
The original title of “The Art of Getting By” was “Homework.” That was actually more apt, since it’s sheer drudgery to watch.