Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Liberal Arts (2012)

Liberal ArtsIt's fair to say that I wasn't a huge fan of Josh Radnor's first film as a writer/director "Happythankyoumoreplease." While the movie had promise and some strong points, it veered a little too far into preciousness and quirk for my taste. I might have been in the minority, though, as the film scored an Audience Award at Sundance. But for me, many of its plot digressions seemed a little too contrived to be taken seriously. In his second effort, "Liberal Arts," I find myself having a similar reaction. Overall, though, the movie works much more cohesively. It strikes some irresistibly bittersweet moments and features some winning performances. But every time Radnor scores with a heartfelt, affectionate, or funny scene, he counters with something too convenient or unbelievable to follow it up. Simply put, "Liberal Arts" is a good movie (sometimes very good) that struggles to find a consistent tone. Radnor has talent as both a writer and director, sometimes he just needs to rein in the artificiality that comes with excessive quirk.

"Liberal Arts" relies on a middle-aged nostalgia for one's college days. As a central theme, it is one that strikes a real emotional chord and is something that many of us can easily identify with. Radnor plays a New York City resident who is invited to his small town alma mater to honor a favorite professor (Richard Jenkins). The two men share an easy bond and their scenes together have a quiet poignancy and effectiveness. While there, Radnor becomes entangled with a feisty co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) despite their sixteen year age difference. There are some fresh comic moments throughout. I especially liked an uncredited Zac Effron as an ethereal life force that connects rather fancifully with Radnor. But there are also moments of deep sadness. Jenkins struggles with his life choices and Radnor has to face the realities of his relationship with the younger Olsen. What does it mean to finally grow up? That's the position Radnor finds himself confronting.

The movie has some terrific highlights. Jenkins is great. Allison Janney has an amusing, but brief, side plot. But for me, the movie all but belongs to Olsen. She's so likable and, more importantly, so believable. It's hard to imagine not falling in love with her. Breezy and heartfelt in equal measures, she epitomizes every idealistic crush you might have experienced. When she's on screen the movie soars. I might have lived without a couple of peripheral stories like Radnor inexplicably befriending a troubled student. This is one of the developments that seems far more scripted than real. Still, "Liberal Arts" has its heart in the right place. It strikes an appropriately wistful tone and should be an appealing diversion to most. While I wanted to love it (and I did love the central plot of the film), I merely liked it due to some of the extraneous choices. About 3 1/2 stars for me, I'll round up for Olsen who is becoming an increasingly impressive young actress. KGHarris, 12/12.

Now THIS is one to watch for! It is witty, intelligent, well-acted, adult, textured and beautifully acted, with a gorgeous soundtrack. Our 2012 Seattle International Film Festival audience could scarcely contain ourselves as we exited the theater. We had watched decent people trying to cope with the vagaries of growing up, each at his or her own pace, each with his or her own degree of success.

Let's look at some of these nice people:

* Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") is Jesse, an Admissions officer for a New York City school, called to give a speech for a former professor who is retiring at his old alma mater. He is a bookworm who says a dual English/History degree should make a graduate fully unemployable. He meets a couple of undergrads while visiting his old campus.

* Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") is Zibby, a young woman wise for her years but who views a relationship with our hero as a possible short-cut to maturity. She gives him a mix-tape filled with works by dead white males, i.e., European composers Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Shubert. That is his FIRST surprise from her! She is smart, decent and has great insight. And she LOVES "snail mail."

* John Magaro ("My Soul to Take") is Dean, the other student our hero meets on campus. This guy hates hyperbole and is terminally depressed! He keeps re-reading a book written by an author who killed himself. He's attending college because he got a "full ride" scholarship and his single mom is "soooo proud!"

* Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") is Peter Hoberg, the professor trying to make the difficult transition to retirement.

* Allison Janney ("The Help") is Judith Fairfield, the acerbic professor who helped our hero learn to love dead white males (in this case the Romantic poets). She thinks he has a "gooey heart!"

* Elizabeth Reaser (the "Twilight" trilogy) is Ana, who works in a bookstore. She notices he reads dead white males, authors who shall remain nameless.

* Zac Efron ("The Lucky One") is Nat, who may or may not exist....

Writer/director Josh Radnor ("Happythankyoumoreplease") has a great future ahead. He doesn't talk down to his audience, his characters are literate, witty, decent and earnest. The soundtrack is absolutely wonderful and Radnor's bittersweet views on aging and age differences are very realistic. We laughed at his stunned reaction to a "Vampire" trilogy. This is top notch! will notify me when the DVD is available.

Buy Liberal Arts (2012) Now

I just watched this movie last night at a theater on the campus of Florida Atlantic University and it was one of the best movies I've seen all year. I mention that it was on a university campus because the staff, all undergraduates, thought the movies was terrific, so it isn't just the opinion of middle aged guys like me. Usually, if I see a movie in the theater, I don't get the DVD, but I will buy this one.

Unlike most American movies even indy's these days this is a movie that respects its screenwriter. As a result, in plot and dialogue, it is like many foreign movies: designed for serious minded people, grown-ups, which is appropriate for a movie about growing up (no matter how old you are) and the limits of intellect without character. It is hard for me to define the ideas of the movies without making it sound dull, but it is also extraordinarily funny. Even now, 24 hours after I saw the movie, lines of dialogue or certain scenes keep coming back to me, alternately making me laugh or ponder the wisdom of the film, from the hilariously unromantic date with an inspired professor of romantic literature to the trenchant observation that "guilt before you act is morality," this will be a movie I will want to watch many times.

Read Best Reviews of Liberal Arts (2012) Here

This superbly acted and directed study of the ambiguity in all of its main characters deserves the highest praise. Any ending was possible even though several would not be liked by certain viewers. But the ending is not the point. Each character struggles with his or her inner demons to find a personal solution to life (or death). It is their individual vacillating approaches to a personal ending with its intellectual underpinnings which which makes this film so grand.

Martin P. Feldman

Want Liberal Arts (2012) Discount?

An extremely painless, easy-to-digest light comedy and morality tale of various characters coming to grips with change of life issues. The actors are generally attractive and photogenic. One is mentally troubled (but non-violent) and others are surreal. The plot itself is a bit tepid but suitable mainly as an entertaining way to kill time when you're not looking for much in the way of excitement and when nothing better is available.

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