Liberal Arts, 2012.
Written and Directed by Josh Radnor.
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olson, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro and Zac Efron.
Jessie (Radnor) returns to his old college for his old professor’s retirement party and it’s during that weekend that he meets a student, Zibby (Olson). The two hit it off right away but the 16 year age difference poses a problem to their growing relationship.
Elizabeth Olson’s Zibby deems Josh Radnor’s Jesse a “snob” in one scene of Liberal Arts – a point of criticism that could be exercised in discussion of Radnor’s second writing and directorial feature. Radnor paints a picture of love, life and learning with copious amounts of brainy references, yet even with some ostentatious scripting the film feels wonderfully refreshing. Many may leave Liberal Arts complaining of its pretentiousness and pseudo-intellectual musings but these should not be taken as negative aspects of the filmmaking. On the contrary, Radnor is writing with smarts and sensibilities seldom seen in recent cinema. Only a few romantic comedies stand the test of time or win over the harshest of critics and they do this by revising the genre or adding a sense of humanity to it. I’m thinking of such examples as Manhattan, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, Before Sunrise /Sunset and (500) Days of Summer, with Liberal Arts judiciously getting its place among them.
Having made his first cinematic effort with Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor seems to improving on both scripting and directing. Liberal Arts not only feels mature and well-thought out, it is also acted with beautiful charisma and feeling. It is no wonder that two of Radnor’s favourite films include Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; his own angle on the dialogue between two people falling for one another is as sharp and poignant as Richard Linklater’s. The way Radnor also presents himself in the film – an incredibly down-to-earth romantic philosopher – is not so different to Ethan Hawke, each actor able to win audience’s hearts. As a friend of Jesse’s wonders, “I’m not sure why I like this guy so much?” the retort is perfectly apt: “It’s because he’s likeable”. Likeable indeed; Radnor is simply too kind of person on and off screen to make you bored or disapproving of what he has to say.
Joining Radnor on his journey of love’s inquest is the brilliant Elizabeth Olson – who is understandably becoming recognised as a new star. She has the enchanting eyes of Grace Kelly and the wholesome, girl-next-door qualities of a young Michelle Pfeiffer that gives her a radiant presence. She lends herself effortlessly to the role of 19-year-old college student, Zibby, who could be the apple of many men’s eye. The chemistry between Radnor and Olsen is so palpable, giving the film a naturalistic edge. This authenticity is not only confined to the two leads but spreads out to the splendid supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro and Zac Efron. All of the supporting roles have been written with loving care so that the scenes not embracing Zippy and Jessie’s romance entertain just as equally. The supports also get at least one scene devoted to them and Radnor makes sure they don’t miss their chance to shine; Efron and Janney, especially, get hilarious scenes crafted for their characters so much so that their absence can be displeasingly felt.
Liberal Arts is quite simply a delight. It should not be classed as a formulaic “rom-com”; it is instead a “romantic comedy” – an advanced example of the genre. Radnor has used his fame and fortune from How I Met Your Mother very wisely – making films that could entertain a huge audience. Chances are this film will not be enjoyed all round due to its intellect – it poses troubling issues and relates to the arts perhaps too frequently for universal appeal. The masses that want a stale rom-com can wait a week and get their wish, for those who want more from a romantic comedy will certainly find it in this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Piers McCarthy – Follow me on Twitter.