[Contains mandated noodles and SPOILERS!!!]
I originally picked up my copy of The Art of Getting By (2011) in a charity shop (for 50p!), hoping that the tale of a misanthropic introvert who learns to open himself up to love might inspire me in some way… but sadly all this indie-schmindie wank-fantasy for socially-awkward, middle-class white boys motivated me to do was write an angry blog post about it!
The film’s main wish-fulfilment conduit is ‘George’, a young misanthropic virgin who doesn’t have a friend in the world… yet, through a small act of smoking-related self-sacrifice, manages to attract the attention of the most beautiful and popular girl in school! Hurrah! She becomes fascinated with him for no explicable reason, bringing him out of his shell, teasing him with sex, and then copping off with his bohemian mentor, before realising that George is the true love of her life after all, and rushing back to his side. Hurrah! Meanwhile, on the academic side of things, our hero is being threatened with expulsion, as a result of being too darn angst-ridden to produce a single scrap of course-work! Thankfully, the teachers are so convinced of his secret genius that they give him three weeks grace to do a year’s worth of assignments (alongside his final exams), so that he can graduate with the rest of his class… and he aces it, because he’s just that awesome! Hurrah! He also (inadvertently) hospitalises his dead-beat step-father, who’s been selfishly burning through his doting mother’s credit, thus motivating her to finally divorce his goldbricking ass. Hurrah! As if that weren’t indulgent enough, while watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes I realised that the actors playing George (Freddie Highmore) and the loft-dwelling artist who sorta-steals his girlfriend (Michael Angarano), both bear a resemblance to Gavin Wiesen, the writer-director responsible for this “semi-autobiographical” wet-dream! Feh!
All that, I might have been able to forgive – in the sense that I would have simply traded the DVD in and forgotten about it – if it weren’t for the fact that one of the central plot threads involved George finally, supposedly finding something to say through his Art. At the start of the story, he’s an habitual doodler, filling his notebooks with all kinds of cool-looking cartoons… but this, the film tells us, isn’t enough… this isn’t ART. Sure, he can knock out drawings of rampaging monsters and teachers getting punched in the jaw that would make many aspiring cartoonists weep with envy… but real Art should say something personal and passionate. It should be a reflection of the Artist’s heart and soul. “Forget that comic book crap, kid… if you’re going to get anywhere in life, you need to dig deep and spill your guts on the canvas!” And, after all the heartbreak, life-lessons, and domestic violence he’s goes through, what does he finally come out with, to blow his teacher away, win his diploma, and wow the viewer? Er… a flat, slightly sketchy portrait of the girl who kinda-cheated on him, with none of the life or energy he invested in his earlier cartoons. Meh. There’s such a big build-up beforehand, and the teacher’s reaction is so over-the-top, that the reveal of this alleged masterpiece is deeply underwhelming and unintentionally hilarious… but also perfectly emblematic of the film’s blinkered priorities, naval-gazing moribundity, shallow emotional palette, and cultural snobbery. In fact, the only time any of these teenagers demonstrate the slightest interest in anything even vaguely resembling pop-culture is when the broken-hearted hero wallows in his sorrow by playing a fifty-year-old Leonard Cohen song on repeat. Oy!
At one point George and his mentor visit an art gallery, and the young d-bag sneers at an abstract scrawl, commenting: “I think anyone could turn this out, except why would they want to? What’s it saying?” I don’t really believe that anyone could write and direct a feature film (even one as short and bland as this), but I would argue that any white middle-class male who’d ever fallen in love with a pretty girl could write this same story… and it really isn’t saying anything we haven’t read, heard, or seen a thousand times over already.
As for the vastly over-qualified female cast: Emma Roberts brings the full force of her natural charm to the rather underwritten and unsympathetic role of George’s trophy love interest… Elizabeth Reaser gets to do some fun drunk-acting as her embarrassingly inappropriate mother… Rita Wilson gets very short-shrift as the hero’s mother… and Alicia Silverstone is almost unrecognisable as his dowdy, vindictive teacher. Boo!