Liberal Arts: Radnor is no Woody Allen, Thank God

Liberal Arts Movie Poster

Liberal Arts – 2012

Written and Directed by Josh Radnor
Starring Radnor, Elizabeth Olson, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser

As a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York, Josh Radnor has the face that crosses most people after they’ve been gone from college for long enough to realize that this is all their life has become.  Fortuitously, he gets a call from his favorite college professor, asking him to come back to Ohio for his retirement.  His professor (Jenkins) could be considered an age-progressed version of himself.  Neither has anything to show for where they are.  Then there’s Zibby (Olson).

There is an attraction, of course, and there is little resistance at first, except for Zibby’s wish for ritualistic dating.  She gives him a Mix CD, he really gets into it, and they start a letter writing relationship.  He starts working with numbers, and hoping it could work.  The whole thing is very quaint.  Until he makes a return trip.

Meanwhile, his professor has second thoughts on his retirement.  There is another professor (Janney) that he enjoyed and somewhat fantasized about.  And then the depressed but brilliant student (Magaro) and a deceptively brilliant dippy non-student (Efron).  Each of these characters add something to the story, and, wisely, something to the character.

For Radnor, this is an impressive work.  He shows a subtle understanding of many aspects to the life of his character, Jesse.  He is a guy who always must carry a book, lives in his mind, and has a fundamental misunderstanding of life.  That he can show his character’s weaknesses and still give him charm, charisma and a willingness to learn.  All the while, he adheres to his own sense of morality.  The best part of his journey is his mission to recognize and shed himself of delusions.  In this trip, he finds some people ahead of him, and some people behind.  Age is not the deciding factor.  For Jesse, there is no deciding factor, except for what you choose to do and not to do.

Olsen gives a great performance of one who might seem wise, especially if one is looking to move in on her.  There was a point to the film where I thought Radnor was going to cruise in that direction, to live out some Woody Allen type of lie.  If he had, the film would have been entertaining, but ultimately a disappointment.  Since he doesn’t, Olsen is allowed to become a full person, instead of some winsome whore.  Great move.

The rest of the cast is spot on as well.  By keeping the characters in an arc around Jesse’s story, they seem richer than they would had they gone through to their own conclusions.  He allows his characters to teach each other along the way in life, much like improv, as one of his character says.  This is the work of a talented filmmaker, but more importantly, it is the work of a conscientious human being.  We need more people like this.

(***** out of *****)

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