Getting to Know You Movie Review

When I first heard of this film, I immediately got the title reference. Like Joyce Carol Oates, I have lived in Princeton, and remember vaguely that ad series (I believe it was for Bell Atlantic, but am not sure) that featured the song with the thoroughly annoying refrain "Getting to Know You / Getting to Know All About You." For the remainder of the film, this tidbit of a song was stuck in my head. The fact that the film opens with music that seems a slight variant to the song does not help. The presence of such a score in my head for an hour and a half on end is enough to drive just about anyone to insanity.

Perhaps it is the annoying idiosyncratic insanity of that television Ad series that compelled Joyce Carol Oates to write the collection "Heat." Perhaps the filmmakers also heard the ads and, although not compelled to switch their local phone company, were compelled to make a film that would bring this particular psychological thumbscrew to the minds of anyone who lived on the Eastern Seaboard while the ads were running.

It would be fitting.

You see, Getting to Know You, although not a psychological torture device in and of itself, uses the psychological tortures of eavesdropping and chitchat to propel what would otherwise be a short film's psychodrama along.

Getting to Know You concerns Judith (Heather Matarazzo) and Wesley (Zach Braff), a brother and sister thrown about by fate who are waiting at the same bus station so that they can return to college after visiting their mother, Trix (Liberty Heights' Bebe Neuwirth) in a New York State mental institution. Wesley is content to study next semester's books. Judith, on the other hand, goes about the bus station for the span of several hours observing strangers.

While at a pinball machine, Jimmy, who may or may not be an old acquaintance from one of Judith's multiple high schools, and Judith meet up and begin their very lengthy conversation. During this conversation, the live up to both the title of the film and the title of the short story that it is primarily based upon, and get to know all about each other. Since Getting to Know You was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance, and since Sundance has a serious vice for films about secrets and lies, we know from the get go that there are going to be a few skeletons in the closets.

During the lengthy conversation, Jimmy and Judith use the vice of voyeurism to vicariously enter the other bus station patrons' lives.

While this is an interesting idea, it is not especially an original one... the voyeur has been a favorite for telling stories in film since Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. This concept works moderately well here. The two voyeur's stories concern a lucky night in Atlantic City with a man who gave a false name and a story about the destructive relationship between a religious zealot father and a sci-fi fan son. The first story trudges along, and does nothing for the film but increases the running time. The second story, on the other hand, does incredibly well.

The second story is a wonderful illustration of one the all-time classic games of creativity: extrapolation. From the fact that a woman shows up at a bus station laden with bags and that the Judith and Jimmy overhear that she is barren, the two extrapolate an entire back-story to a complete stranger. As the two begin to disagree over the story, the narrative is passed to another without skipping a beat. From that sequence, however, the film is only downhill.

Secrets are revealed, skeletons unearthed, and characters explained. The bizarre cardboard cutouts of Jimmy and Judith are given complete back-stories, and, sadly, these back-stories open a door that leads to cliché. Suddenly, the film becomes about students not going to college, and you have the feeling that Joyce Carol Oates wrote the story out of immense frustration at a student who slacked off in her class at Princeton.

Per the usual in an ensamble piece, the acting is top notch but lacking in certain departments. Zach Braff and Michael Weston are better than I have ever seen them before. I have only watched Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith on "Cheers" and "Frasier" and thus have nothing to judge her serious side by (however, if this film is any example, she shouldn't give up that occasional "Frasier" appearance just yet). Heather Matarazzo is really personally disappointing me, seeing as I have been following her career since her excellent debut in Welcome to the Dollhouse (the film that explains exactly how Jersey can rule and be pathetic at the same time), and it seems that she does not age like wine. Matarazzo's performance may still have been great, but she has slipped so much from the slightly psychotic performance as Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse that I found her to simply be disappointing in the role.

However, the film deserves credit for its very survival of the critique. The genre, at this point, is full to overflowing, and I have become sick and tired of watching most "My Closet has more Skeletons than a Brooklyn Graveyard" movies. The song that gave the film its title annoyed me, but the film didn't... and that says something.

Comments

Getting to Know You Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 1999

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