STARRING Elizabeth Olsen, Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Reaser, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Richard Jenkins WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Josh Radnor MPAA RATING NR RUNNING TIME 97 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY IFC Films DVD EXTRAS Extras: deleted scenes, commentary and a making-of featurette
"Liberal Arts" a Tender and Insightful Film
If you had any doubt about Elizabeth Olsen's status as an up-and-coming actress, and you shouldn't have, then her appearance in Josh Radnor's indie Liberal Arts should very well seal the deal.
A good actor or actress can make a bad film tolerable, an average film watchable and a good film absolutely sublime. In other words, a good actor always makes a difference in their film and when they're off their game, as occasionally happens for most performers, it's almost devastating to the film.
It's hard to imagine Liberal Arts without Olsen, because Olsen takes what could have easily been a stock character and turns her into a vibrant and warm and funny and intelligent human being who also happens to behave much like any 19-year-old would when experiencing what feels like "attention" for the first time. Olsen is Zibby, and the "attention" comes from 35-year-old Jesse (Josh Radnor), who is experiencing a tremendous degree of burn-out as the admissions officer at a prestigious New York City college. When he's asked by one of his favorite former professors (Richard Jenkins) to return to his alma mater of Kenyon College in Ohio to share some remarks at the professor's retirement, Jesse leaps at the chance to return to the place where he seemingly last remembers life actually mattering.
Liberal Arts sort of feels like a film that would be bred between Woody Allen and Julie Delpy. The final result is a film that satisfies both intellectually despite occasionally dipping into the land of the formulaic. This isn't just some college sex comedy, though Radnor also has the guts to allow the film to address that issue with honesty and tremendous vulnerability.
Radnor, whom most of America will recognize from television's How I Met Your Mother, also writes and directs Liberal Arts in a way that makes it feel far more authentic than the vast majority of similarly themed films being released these days. It helps that he seems to have a genuine affection for these films, giving them moments of both sympathy and celebration.
Of course, again, it helps to have Elizabeth Olsen in your cast.
Thus far in her young career, Olsen has picked up an Oscar nomination for Martha Marcy May Marlene and dabbled in horror (Silent House), comedy (Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) and a mystery/thriller (Red Lights). She has elevated each film she has appeared in and only cemented herself as one of the most talented of the younger generation of actresses. In Liberal Arts, Olsen exudes both the faux worldly confidence and the fragility of a 19-year-old on campus and just discovering real life. Her attraction to Jesse begins as conversation and, in all honesty, never strays that far from it even though her 19-year-old heart and mind and body begins to yearn for more. Olsen's conflictedness is beautiful to behold, and her performance here is alone worth the price of admission.
Radnor is not as gifted a performer, though he clearly knew his range and his limitations when he wrote the character of Jesse. Jesse doesn't need to be a deeply felt character, but what he does need is to feel genuinely worn out by life and in this way Radnor sells the character completely. Radnor can certainly be funny, and he and Olsen possess a nice chemistry that allows for this relationship to feel believable and even healthy despite the vast age difference.
Radnor also does a nice job of developing the supporting characters, including a performance by Zac Efron as the campus poet that is so relaxed and light that I actually forgot it was Efron. John Magaro is also terrific as Dean, a student who always seems to be simmering emotionally underneath his surface.
Richard Jenkins seems unable to give a bad performance and his performance in Liberal Arts is no exception. While on the surface it appears that he's given very little to do here, what he does is beautifully done and quite moving. Allison Janney is also here in a terrific appearance as a professor of British Romantic Lit with whom Jesse has always been a bit in awe.
There are times that Liberal Arts carries with it that sort of Garden State sensibility, a beautiful weaving together of life's inherent dramatic and comic moments all rolled into one cinematic ball of authenticity. If you can surrender yourself to it, you'll very likely find yourself genuinely enjoying your time with Liberal Arts. If, however, you find yourself unable to surrender to the magic of cinema without special effects involved then Liberal Arts may not be the film for you.