There's something more than a little disturbing in the casual brutality with which the film makes college about the parents rather than the kids, following their story to the exclusion of their progeny. In one scene, George and Edith sit on the quad and make up life stories for the students walking by, including at least one girl who is openly weeping. Several times in their wanderings they see and stare at students making out or having sex. Campus life becomes a voyeuristic meta-film for forty-somethings.
Most unpleasantly, in order to spend more time together, they both lie, and then lie again, to Edith's daughter Audrey, sending her off on various goose-chases across campuses. Toward the end, she is reduced to tears, desperately trying to call her mother, who won't answer the cell-phone. Audrey's increasingly desperate anger as her mother jerks her around is quite understandable—yet it's portrayed as hysterical and excessive. How dare she try to have her college visit be part of her story, when the film clearly is about Edith? Even Audrey's professorial idol, Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt) tells her to loosen up. Her certainty and academic focus on linguistics is presented as pathological. College should be a time to expand, not to narrow down, Emerson tells her. Edith and George have it right as they frolic and flounce away from their responsibilities, pretending that they're 18, that they're not married, and/or that they're married to each other. Conrad has the right idea, too, when he apprentices himself to the aging college DJ and uses his time on the mike to broadcast a seize-the day message to all the undergrads. Education isn't about learning linguistics. It's about learning to have fun, taking off that ridiculous bow tie and contemplating infidelity in a bell tower.
The more or less unspoken context here is class, of the economic variety. George is a cardiac surgeon; Edith sells "high-end" children's furniture. They're both solidly upper-middle affluent, as they need to be if their children are going to attend Middleton, which, it is mentioned, costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. Expanding your mind, whether by improv acting or pot, is both enabled by and underlines the state of one's bank account. If poor Audrey were actually poor, all her AP classes and all her work would be urgently needed money in the bank, hard-won steps on the way to a credential that could mean health care and food security not just for herself, but for her mother as well. Instead, her focus and commitment are seen as a lack of imagination. Here you are in this paradise of self-actualization and all you can think of is linguistics? What's wrong with you? Go leap into that fountain as into a spraying stream of greenbacks, already, and come forth transformed.
College in media is regularly portrayed as an island of self-exploration and opportunity, from the gross appetite of Animal House's frat scene to the brainy riches to more riches tale of The Social Network. In reality, the experience of college as playground is restricted. Fully 44 percent of those who attend post-secondary school go not to Middleton or the like, but to a community college. Those who do attend elite universities are shockingly wealthy; at Harvard, 45.6 percent of undergraduates come from families with income over $200,000, putting them in the top 3.8 percent of households in the U.S.