While I definitely enjoyed Josh Radnor’s first feature, I wasn’t prepared at all for the giant leap forward that he takes as a filmmaker with ‘Liberal Art’s, an absolute gift of a motion picture. Besides Radnor’s sublime writing and direction, he also turns in a fine lead performance, not to mention the outstanding work from Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, and Allison Janney. Even Zac Efron managed to impress me, so that lets you know how well this worked for me. The movie is a love letter to college, books (not just literature, but books themselves), and yes, even New York City again (though it’s not a fully New York set story like ‘HappyThankYouMorePlease’ was). Radnor easily avoids the sophomore slump and shows that he’s an actor who’s going to be known as much as anything for his filmmaking abilities. Few films this year have been as easily enjoyable and heartwarming as this one, which stands among the 10 finest things I’ve seen in 2012. I really can’t say enough about this flick, and even if it’s not necessarily going to be an Oscar player (though it’s certainly good enough), I really want to champion it. The movie comes out this week and you really owe it to yourself to see it. The film is really something special and deserves an audience. It gets one of the highest compliments that I can pay a film in that I actually wished that the story had gone on longer, I was enjoying myself so much…I literally didn’t want it to end!
Jesse Fisher (Radnor) looked at his college years as the best time of his life. Immersed in ideas, literature, and a feeling that anything is possible, college was a high point for him and it’s all been downhill from there. Now living in New York City and unhappily working as an admissions representative for a school, he’s kind of just going through the motions. When Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) calls up his former student and asks him to come back to campus for his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Professor Hoberg was his favorite teacher, or second favorite as he accidentally reveals when they bump into the now frosty Romance Literature Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), and they’ve now become more friends than anything else. Hoberg has Jesse come out to lunch with some friends of his, including their daughter Zibby (Olsen), who’s now a student at the university. There’s an instant spark between the two, but it takes an unlikely meeting with the spacey yet wise Nat (Zac Efron), who brings Jesse to a party that Zibby’s at, to get him to meet up with her the next day for a stroll around campus. When Jesse has to return to New York, they decide to start writing actual letters back and forth, which begins the process of them falling for each other. Zibby invites Jesse back to campus, and that’s where things get complicated. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s not what you think, and that’s a real plus for this delightful flick.
The acting is strong across the board, with Josh Radnor himself doing very fine work in the lead role. His character is an old soul, but still a man child in many ways, so he’s definitely still a work in progress, and Radnor sells that to us perfectly. The way his character looks at life makes him a perfect candidate to have the sort of conversations with a college student that only fellow undergrads usually have. You get the sense that Jesse has been missing this life, and it fuels the chemistry that Radnor has with Elizabeth Olsen, who again proves she’s an incredible young actress. Olsen is full of life in this bubbly role, but she never becomes that sort of “manic pixie dream girl” that some movies of this ilk might decide to make her. Olsen’s acting and her aforementioned chemistry with Radnor make for not only some memorable scenes, but some memorable acting as well. In a much bigger role than he had in Radnor’s last flick (which was essentially a cameo), Richard Jenkins gets to be the wise man of the movie, but his subplot about retirement and regret is still just as compelling as the love story at hand. Jenkins is always good, and this is no exception. The same goes for Allison Janney, who gets to play a bit against type. Even Zac Efron is good here, actually getting to be the comic relief in a way, though also another character who gives advice to our protagonist. John Magaro contributes a solid supporting turn as a troubled student that Jesse meets on campus and sort of takes under his wing, while Elizabeth Reaser gets a small part too as an employee at the book store in New York that Jesse frequents. Both actors make the most of their limited screen time and leave an impression. The cast also includes Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, and Michael Weston, but Radnor, Olsen, Jenkins, and Janney are the top performers here.
As good as his acting is, Josh Radnor is even better behind the scenes. His writing is still just as sharp as ever, but his directing has taken a real step forward. Part of his success certainly has to do with the enthusiasm he had for shooting the film at the actual college that he went to (Kenyon College, which coincidentally is where both of my girlfriend’s parents went, along with her sister and brother in law as well, so I’m familiar with how beautiful the campus is and how much the alumni love it), and it really shows in how immersive the feeling of being at college is here. Few films have managed to capture the feeling of being an undergrad on a big sprawling campus, but he achieves that feeling in spades here. He also manages to make reading cinematic, as many scenes have Jesse reading or discussing a book. Radnor creates some memorable scenes in this film, mainly a sequence showing Jesse and Zibby falling in love via letters (it’s a low tech cousin to the phone conversation in ‘Elizabethtown’, as a reference point), as well as a scene of Jesse seeing New York City in a whole new way due to the music Zibby has recommended to him. The direction is crisp, the pacing is solid, and the script is honest and full of heart. Radnor really is firing on all cylinders here. Aside from a mild stumble in the third act, this is nearly a flawless flick. He likely won’t be recognized, but in a better world he’d be under consideration for Best Original Screenplay.
I’d been wanting to sing the praises of ‘Liberal Arts’ for almost a month now, but my embargo has only just now lifted in advance of the film opening in limited release this Friday. Still, now’s as good a time as any to say just how wonderful it is. Josh Radnor is officially a triple threat, and if he continues to do work this good it’s only a matter of time before he’s an Oscar nominee. The movie is truly a step up for him and one of the finest of the year so far. Do yourself a favor and make it your business to see this heartwarming flick. I can all but guarantee a good time if you check it out this weekend. It’s just that much of a triumph of everyone involved.
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Tags: Allison Janney, Elizabeth Olsen, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro, Josh Radnor, Liberal Arts, Oscar hopeful, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron