[Review] – Liberal Arts

4 Oct

Title: Liberal Arts
Year: 2012
Director: Josh Radnor
Writer: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Zac Efron
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 97 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Metacritic: 54

Last year I remember watching Happythankyoumoreplease, the writing-directing debut of Josh Radnor, the actor most people know for playing Ted Mosby on CBSHow I Met Your Mother, and thinking it was a really solid first time effort. I thought he showed that he definitely had the goods to be making his own films, that he had a lot of heart which was pretty evident because of how much you could just tell he personally loved his characters and the keen observations about their lives he made. So I was all in for his sophomore effort, Liberal Arts, which he made last summer during his hiatus from the hit sitcom and premiered this year at Sundance.

Another thing that had me pumped for this one was the fact that the female lead went to Elizabeth Olsen. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while then you know how big a fan I am of Ms. Olsen’s, how many great, great things I predict of her future, solely because of how she completely blew me away with her debut performance in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, one of the thirteen 2011 releases I granted an A+ to. She’s already been in three films this year: Silent House, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding and Red Lights, none of which were all that good, so I was eager to see her shine again.

Ms. Olsen is here as Zibby, this beautiful sophomore student at college with a love for classical music and, as you might imagine, the love interest of the film. Mr. Radnor once again pulls triple-duty here also taking on the lead role of Jesse Fincher, a guy who’s single once again and who’s lost his joie de vivre, spending most of his time reading books and thinking about his old college days and how they were probably the peak of his life and it was all downhill now. His favorite professor from his alma mater in Ohio then asks him to speak at his retirement dinner and that where Jesse goes and where he meets Zibby who awakens in him all these feelings he thought were lost in him.

To be honest I don’t know how big a step up, if at all, Liberal Arts is when compared to Happythankyoumoreplease, but I still just really responded to this film and continue to think Mr. Radnor has this great eye for little details and for crafting just the right atmosphere. I will say one thing though, and that’s that the biggest problem I had concerning Mr. Radnor’s debut I still have with this one and that’s the fact that I can’t help but feel as though he plays it all a little bit too safe, I think he needs to learn to take bigger risks with his stories, no matter how witty and perceptive they already are.

I really connected to this film here because I too love reading and I could see myself, much like Jesse, just totally falling for Zibby not necessarily just because of her looks (though Ms. Olsen is gorgeous) but because it’s with her that he can have these idealistic conversations about the arts and about stuff that resonates with him and that he longs for. The catch, as some of you may have already caught on, is that Zibby is 19 and Jesse is 35. He pines for her because she reminds him of the stuff he misses from his days at college, and she pines for him because, well, many 19 year-olds probably would for a well-read 35 year-old.

This is the kind of film that you just have to really let yourself fall for. And I did. Mostly because Ms. Olsen shines at her brightest since her breathtaking debut performance here, she’s just a super confident kind of performance that his this undeniable charm and appeal to me as a viewer. The scenes she shares with Mr. Radnor work because she never once plays Zibby as this kind of young girl being ‘trapped’ in any way by the older man, she’s never the victim, and they have this ease with each other and you can always really get why they would start developing feelings for each other.

Mr. Radnor doesn’t lose focus on the other characters by the way, and they help him form this vision that’s unapologetically in love with conversations about books and music and theater (as well as it should be) but that’s also very weary of the effect nostalgia can have on one and that going back home as it were may seem super easy but is almost always not at all.

Richard Jenkins plays Peter, Jesse’s mentor that asks him to come back for his retirement and he just embeds him with the sort of quality only an actor as fine as Mr. Jenkins can do, you can get why Jesse would see him as a role model and you feel for Peter as you see that he doesn’t really want to retire because he won’t really know what to do with himself then. Allison Janney is also here in another one of those roles of role model professors that leave a mark, and you just know she will just absolutely kill the role the second you see her on screen, and she does. Two fine actors that give Liberal Arts some of its finest scenes.

Liberal Arts is a smart film, a bittersweet kind of campus comedy at times, a film that shows Mr. Radnor really does have knack for directing and really knows how to observe life because of how much he loves his characters. Like I said, the one problem I had with this one is that it plays it too safe at times, something that probably comes from the fact that Mr. Radnor is indeed so in love with his characters, especially the alter ego he created for himself, that he can’t really throw them that much for a loop. Still, he’s got the goods, and the wisdom to have cast Ms. Olsen, and I’ll most definitely be in line for whatever he has in store for us next.

Grade: B+

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