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I see this movie as a look at life through the perspectives of
different generations. Aging may bring wisdom, (well, at least to some)
but it also brings a whole new array of problems; problems that cannot
be understood by those outside of a highly specific age range. There
may be some communication between generations. We can learn from both
those who have gone before us and those younger than us, but this
learning is more at the intellectual than emotional level.
Thirty-five-year-old Jesse (Josh Radnor) is introduced to classical
music by 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) but their perspectives on
life challenge their chances to unite in a more personal way.
The film, in some ways, is like the Canterbury Tales (which is mentioned in the movie), only instead of traveling to a city while relating different tales, the characters are traveling through life with different perspectives. We have youthful optimism and idealism, age with its cynicism and bitterness, and middle-age with its realism. There are also perspectives from mysticism and despair. This is more of a psychological movie than an action movie. Although I never lost interest in the story, I am well-aware that this is not what most younger moviegoers are looking for and it is they who will be disappointed in this film. So be it. When today's hottest action films are replaced by those which have better special effects, films like Liberal Arts will endure because they will stand on their own merits, outside of time.
I found the acting good and the screenplay excellent. The interaction between the characters was believable. I cannot imagine anyone other than the writer, Josh Radnor, playing the main role. He plays the part of a man trapped by middle-aged angst to perfection. However, this is not simply a dry intellectual drama. There is a good deal of humor, some great lines, but it is humor that is witty more than physical.
As a classical music fan myself, I liked seeing Jesse discover this genre. I also liked the scene where Jesse tries to bridge the generation gap mathematically, but I can't say more about that here. In short, this is an enjoyable movie, but those looking for goofball comedies or bloody fight scenes should go onto something else. Don't worry. This film will still be around for you to discover when you are ready for it.
*This review was previously submitted as an assignment in my film
class, which is the reason for its formality and structure.*
"Liberal Arts," written and directed by Josh Radnor, deals with the often-crushing reality of post-college life and the pedestal on which the seemingly idyllic college years are placed. Though the film often runs the risk of becoming an intellectually preachy vanity piece, its genuinely smart writing and relentlessly likable cast elevates it to an honest, enjoyable study of college and its aftermath.
Radnor stars as 35-year-old Jesse, a college recruiter with an unmarketable English/history degree who is nostalgic for his own days at a picturesque Ohio university. When an old professor (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to campus for his retirement dinner, Jesse finds himself drawn to smart, peppy student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), despite his discomfort at the age difference between them. While exploring their latent relationship at his alma mater, Jesse encounters his most influential former professor (Allison Janney), a clinically depressed student (John Magaro), and some realizations about his own aims in life.
Given the subject matter and setting, it's expected that the characters will pride themselves on their intellect and sophistication, and this gives way to some contrived, artsy dialogue, such as a letter montage (never easy to pull off) between Jesse and Zibby in which they wax poetic about classical music, which sounds smart in writing but comes off as unconvincing and pretentious when spoken, accompanied heavy-handedly by poignant New York scenery. However, the witty, laugh-out-loud dialogue usually keeps the film and characters from feeling like they take themselves too seriously, making determinedly highbrow scenes like this clash uncomfortably with the generally self-aware tone.
Radnor writes his character into enough glamorous situations (all the significant female characters sleep with him or try to at some point) and makes him sound over-educated enough that the film could have easily felt like a shameless vanity piece, but he plays Jesse so affably that there's not much room to mind. It's quite believable that his character would attract even young girls, with his naturally youthful looks and self-deprecating charm. Olsen does well with an even more challenging character; Zibby comes dangerously close to the "manic pixie dream girl" archetype of indies, but Olsen plays her with a sweet innocence that never feels fake and, when called on for dramatic moments, she is every bit a real college girl wounded, vulnerable, and ultimately clueless about where she's going in life. Zac Efron flits in and out as a wisdom-dispensing stoner who may or may not be a figment of Jesse's imagination, offering some of the best laughs in the film.
Arguably the best performances, though, are given by Jenkins and Magaro. Jenkins plays the professor every student wants; like the film itself, he doesn't take himself too seriously but is utterly devoted to the school. He delivers some of the best acting in the film when he pleads for his job back mere days after retiring. Magaro is strangely touching as a college student perhaps closer to the norm than the Zibbies of the world: miserable in school, there solely to please his family, and constantly on the brink of a mental breakdown. In his limited screen time, he creates an oddly heart-winning character despite his sullen demeanor.
"Liberal Arts" is an enjoyable, cleverly written film that should strike a note with college students current and former. The witty writing and earnest cast make its few pretentious missteps easy to brush off affectionately.
I am going to start out by saying that I loved this film. I think that Josh Radnor did an excellent job writing, directing and starring in this film. The film conveyed that no matter how old you get, you still have more growing to do. The film also demonstrated the hustle and bustle of city life and the calm, serene climate of the country. It also took me back to my years in college and how intense that part of your life really is and the influence that it has on you. There is always one or two instructors that makes an impression on you in college and for Jesse (Josh Radnor) it was Professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney) and Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Judith was feisty and deliberate and had a no-holds-barred kind of attitude, while Peter was struggling with his decision-making skills. (By the way, my favorite professor was Dr. Spradley who taught me all about technical writing). The relationship that develops between Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jesse is educational in the fact that they both have something to learn from the other. I think that the lessons that they learned maybe even educated the audience a little (I know that is how I felt). The relationship between Jesse and Dean (John Magaro) was a heart-tugging event. Dean kind of reminded me of Will in Good Will Hunting. There are people in this world that are naturally talented in certain things and that is the one thing that they want to do the least. The only character that seemed to have everything pretty much figured out was Nat (Zac Efron). Out of all the characters in this film, I liked him the most. He was quirky, funny and surprisingly insightful. I remember thinking that as strange as he was; I could see myself hanging out with him. Every time he would appear on screen you just knew that he was going to put a smile on your face. I still have a couple of films to see during this film festival, but I have to say that so far this one is my favorite. I hope that when this film comes out to the general public that it does really well. Josh should be very proud of himself for putting together such an engaging piece of work. Pure entertainment! I am giving this film and A+ and a glaring green light.
"And binding with briars my joys and desires." William Blake, from
Songs of Experience
Liberal Arts is a small, endearing film about idealism, the reality of life, the complicated nature of aging, and the beauty of experience. The briars play a part, but mostly it's about the romanticism of academia versus the reality of growing old. That's quite a bit for 97 minutes, but writer/director Josh Radnor does an admirable job setting straight the hopes that a superior education like his at Kenyon College can foster.
This lyrical film, like the simple poem that opens this review, makes no grand demands as it juxtaposes the beauty of undergraduate reading and writing with the reality of love not quite mature enough and maturity not ready enough. New York City college admissions counselor Jesse (Josh Radnor) at 35 returns to his college to visit a retiring professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins), and falls for a 19 year old coed, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, is the beautiful location although not identified.
The complications may be obvious given the differences in their ages, but the issues are spot onand because I lived that plot as a youngish college administrator I congratulate Radnor for neither over-romanticizing nor condemning youthful idealism and the encroachments of "life," described as "happening" after graduation and mitigating the romanticism a college English major fosters. That the pop cult ascendance of the Vampire Trilogy may trump the lofty literature of college does not subvert the notion that everything is good given the right place and time.
The sweetness of the film reaffirms Mr. Radnor as a dreamer of quality, a thinker who confirms life's ambiguities and its promise to those who "say yes" to everything. Again, Blake in Songs of Innocence confirms the efficacy of positive thinking, in this case of feeling the godhead's presence:
He doth give his joy to all;/ He becomes an infant small;/ He becomes a man of woe; / He doth feel the sorrow too.
"It's not Tolstoy, but it's not television, and it makes me happy," Zibby says about reading a vampire trilogy. The same could be said of this simple romance underpinned by Blake's realistic optimism.
These days it is very rare to find a well rounded film with a good moral. While Josh Radnor is know for his raunchy sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," he has many hidden talents that the show does not utilize. As a writer, director, and actor he is superb, and he brings a refreshing change of pace to not only the drama industry, but the film industry in general. From the opening sequence to the credits the film is thoroughly entertaining, and intelligent. Elizabeth Olsen was enthusiastic and energetic, just as Zibby should have been portrayed. Zac Efron was surprisingly humorous, and his slightly off-key character adds a certain lightness to such a dramatic film. Every cast member was perfectly cast, the script is humor, entertaining, and charming. The most astonishing aspect of the film was the use of a classical soundtrack, a general push toward fine arts, great classic literature references, and the idea presented that love and music join us all together. No matter what your particular tastes in film in I urge you to take the time and watch 'Liberal Arts,' you will not be sorry.
I just watched "Liberal Arts" tonight and I loved it. If you have been
to college, and had the complex bright future/bleak future talk with
yourself, you will understand this movie.
To me college was about hope, but it was also about facing the real reality of life, and after college is when the real work begins, more emotional growth than anything. I loved Josh's Radner's character, he was a little lost, and kind of reaching back to days of old hoping to re-kindle some of that passion and drive he once had when he was in college. Elizabeth Olsen's character was great as well, she had the I'm-too-mature-for-my-age-group sort of attitude, that proved just how young she really was. The rest of the cast was fabulous, Richard Jenkins, who I have alway's loved, and Allison Janey, who surprisingly was not the usual character you see with her. This is a movie you take friends to, and then go out for coffee and have a great conversation.
I am not the type of guy who would watch this movie. In fact, I don't even really know why I did. It was just a tough day and I didn't want to watch a movie that was in the triple digit minutes, so I went with this one. Usually I watch action movies, or political dramas. I don't like to read books or romantic movies, even less I like Arts, hence there is nothing that would make me appreciate it, I thought. But I was wrong. This movie is surprisingly great. I caught myself laughing and thinking about life. It was just a beautiful piece of art. A piece of art even I appreciate. On top I never write reviews, but this was just extraordinary.
First of all, I have to say, Josh plays himself. At least it is the
same Josh that is in "How I met your Mother" and his other great effort
Happythankyoumoreplease. Normally that would be a criticism,but he is
so likable and so watchable you don't care. Sort of like James Stewart.
Also, I guessed that he wrote it himself as the dialogue and the
emotions (or lack of) were very realistic. The only thing that wasn't
believable about Elizabeth was her age as they probably should have
made her character a little older. Otherwise, she was outstanding and
her personality was seductive giving credibility to his infatuation
with her. Richard Jenkins was great as usual and Zac offered some
oddball humor. I loved the movie and all the characters which is a nice
change with some of the depressing movies out there.
Oh, and watch the deleted scenes. I'm not going to argue for their inclusion but they are enjoyable.
The hyphenate that is this Josh Radnor guy presents a somewhat thin but
ultimately rewarding film with LIBERAL ARTS. The story is a charming
onejaded New Yorker makes an excursion back to his alma mater in Ohio
and meets a much younger and gorgeous kindred spirit who forces him to
self-reflect. But unfortunately, it's also a story that provides enough
material for an 80 minute film which Radnor stretches out to around 97
minutes. Thus, some of the film drags a bit. Luckily, Radnor casts
actors with incredible talent who breathe life into the film when it
begins to deflate.
Elizabeth Olsen, specifically, is an ace. In a character reversal from her breakthrough in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, she is beautiful and funny, effortlessly natural. The scenes featuring her make the film. Watching her this early in her career and contemplating just how much potential she has and what she'll be able to do with it is exciting for any movie lover. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as always, as is Allison Janney. Even Zac Efron, making a humorous cameo appearance, helps liven things up a bit. The bond shared between Radnor's character and a depressed, anti-social undergrad, played by John Magaro, is particularly sincere.
The film seems to be a meditative-lite work. It's brooding and thoughtful, but it's not something that will permeate your thoughts or stick with you days after watching. But it isn't supposed to be. (At least I don't think so.) The film is probably significantly more appealing to a select group of peoplemainly those with a "liberal arts" background, or those able to register all of the literary referencesbut that is not to say the film is only for some. The pleasant romantic-comedy-ish-drama story and the aforementioned acting is enough to create a film anyone can enjoy if they try. If the viewer tries to get past the somewhat pretentious collegiate talk, tries to hold on for the somewhat slow moments, tries to watch the film as a light and entertaining piece to pass 90-something minutes, it's highly recommended. Seek it out.
A very watchable independent rom-com that delves deeper than the usual
Hollywood studio version. A film about maturity and growing up and the
beauty of words and music.
I particularly liked the intelligence and wit of the script, the use of Classical music and what it can do to you and the highlighting of the difference in location from bustling grey New York to the beautiful quiet greenery of Ohio.
I did find that the main character, written, directed and portrayed by Josh Radnor was too perfect. He was intelligent, sensitive, funny, moralistic and empathetic all rolled up in this cute little package. However, if he had not written it for himself it may not have annoyed me as much. I also found Olsen as the wise beyond her years 19 year old to be rather annoying at certain points, but take out those slightly annoying characteristics, some predictable elements and a pretty awful sub-plot involving Zac Efron and the screenplays words and meaning are too enjoyable to let those things spoil it for you.
Oh and Allison Janney and Richard Jenkins steal every scene they are in.
"nobody thinks they're adult, it's the worlds darkest secret" or words to that affect...
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