During one of the countless intellectual interludes in My Dinner With Andre, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory debate about the purpose of art. Wally Shawn, a struggling playwright, feels that art, particularly the theatre, should capture the pain and heartbreak of life in honest detail. Andre Gregory, an unstable eccentric, feels that art should “take us to Mount Everest.” That it should transcend the pain that we all feel and show us a path to our better selves and out better futures. I don’t think that either man is entirely right and that superb art from both schools of thought has been continually released for much of man’s existence. Whether you want the blunt, harsh fury of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth or David Simon’s The Wire or you prefer the fantastical uplift of The Tree of Life, someone is making a great work of art that suits your needs.
I bring that conversation from My Dinner with Andre up not because I just reviewed the film (though that moment stuck more than almost any other) but because the second directorial feature from How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor seems to have found the magical balance between the honest and the transcendent. Josh Radnor made his directing mark with the charming if muddled HappyThankYouMorePlease, but nothing from that film or his television work could have prepared me for the emotional powerhouse of his latest film, Liberal Arts. For fans of movies like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer, Liberal Arts isn’t simply an easy film to recommend. It is an absolutely must-watch film from a young writer/director who is proving himself to be one of the freshest voices in indie film-making if he can keep this type of quality up.
Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is a college admissions counselor in his mid-30s yearning to recapture the magic and endless possibilities of his own college days. When his favorite (well, second favorite) college professor (Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins) retires and asks Jesse to speak at his retirement party, Jesse immediately grabs the opportunity to return to his alma mater and bask in the nostalgia of his youth. At a dinner with his professor’s friends, Jesse befriends their 19 year old daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson). Jesse has to return to the real world in New York City, but he begins a correspondence with the Ohio-bound Zibby about classical music and it isn’t long before the seeds of romance form. But is their connection simply an attempt by Jesse to bottle the magic of being young or is it something real? And can his conscience handle the moral dilemmas that arise when you date someone 16 years your junior.
Josh Radnor has a tendency to oversell a bit on How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a network sitcom. I guess it’s to be expected. But much like HappyThankYouMorePlease, Liberal Arts affords Radnor the opportunity to prove how talented and multifaceted of an actor that he truly is. Jesse is a complex figure. Sensitive, pretentious, effete, nostalgic, full of regret, still hopeful, love-struck, morally conflicted, lost. Radnor slips into all of these forms with a stunning ease. Though there are certainly similarities between Jesse and Ted Mosby and Sam Wexler, the nuance and subtlety of Radnor’s performance just radiate a talent that Radnor’s been suppressing on network TV for almost ten years now (and I’m a huge How I Met Your Mother fan making that complaint). If more people noticed his skills, he could be a big star.
Elizabeth Olson garnered a lot of buzz in 2011 for her fearless performance in Martha Marcy Maylene, a film I’ve yet to see but which is on my list for this blog. Now, it’s easy to see why. She is a young actress with a maturity and presence beyond her years which made her a perfect fit for the precocious and sagely Zibby. Although Zibby possesses a maturity and perspective that is at least ten years ahead of where she should be in life, Olson still gives the character the tenderness and raw vulnerability that any girl who’s not yet twenty would have particularly as her romance with Jesse hits rough spots. Proving herself to be more talented than both of her more famous sisters combined (though lets face it; what was the last thing you heard about Mary Kate and Ashley), Liberal Arts is another notch in the quickly growing belt of a young starlet that everyone should keep their eyes on.
And the film has a bevy of supporting players buoying the two lead stars. Richard Jenkins turns a heartbreaking performance as the college professor who thinks he wants out of the academics game only to realize too late that the emptiness of retirement and his own impending mortality is more than he cares to face. Juno‘s Allison Janney provides one of the film’s funniest moments as well as one of its most revelatory scenes as an old professor of Jesse’s who Jesse maintained an infatuation with even fifteen years after college ended. John Magaro also rends the heart as a David Foster Wallace loving nerd whose hellish college experience was the antithesis of Jesse’s collegiate bliss and strikes up a fruitful friendship with Jesse. And certainly not least, Zac Efron steals every second he’s on screen as the hippie sage Nat who helps the confused Jesse find his center.
But above the wonderful performances, it was Radnor’s insightful script and sensitive directing that took Liberal Arts to the rank of a new modern indie classic. It’s the rare film that captures something inherently true about love and growing up while still showing honest (the most important word in this sentence) hope that we can get our acts together and find the happiness we seek. Liberal Arts understands the way we romanticize our youth. It understands how that is a byproduct of getting older but while we’re young, we feel our own set of terrors and doubts. It recognizes the instant charm of attraction and innocent romance but then subverts the holy hell out of every “older man dates younger girl” story you’ve ever seen. The film isn’t afraid to break your heart but by the end of the movie, Radnor finds the truth and beauty past the pain and uncertainty and you feel hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we can reach the Everest that Andre Gregory spoke of.
Watch this film. If you ignore the rest of my ramblings in this review, walk away with that bit of advice. I watched the film last night when I got home from a long, stressful day of work, and for 97 minutes, I escaped my own problems and my own neuroses and lost myself in the beautiful tale that Josh Radnor wove. If this is the sign of what the rest of Josh Radnor’s writing and directing career is going to look like, I am excited because Radnor has great things in his future. For everyone who has loved and who has longed for an emotional/intelelctual/romantic fulfillment that never seems to arive, Liberal Arts is the movie for you.
Final Score: A