Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Liberal Arts

Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janey, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Zac Efron
Running Time: 97 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any fears that writer/director/star Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts would hit uncomfortably close to home for me wiped away during the first half-hour when 35 year-old New York college admissions counselor Jesse Fisher (Radnor) laughs and rolls around in the grass upon returning to his alma mater in Ohio. It's a relief when the movie does eventually hit on the truth that returning to your college at any point after graduating can be awkward, uncomfortable experience that isn't the slightest bit welcoming despite how much you may have enjoyed your time there. Once college is over, it's done. The best case scenario is you take what you've learned and the experiences you've had and carry them with you for the rest of your days to positively inform your actions and decisions as an adult. That's not exactly what's happened for Jesse (Radnor) who jumps at the opportunity to return for the retirement ceremony of his second favorite professor, Peter Holberg (Richard Jenkins).

Obsessed with literature and the arts, Jesse's mind had never really left so returning is almost a formality at this point. But it won't be the same. Not by a long shot. It's to Radnor's credit that his script acknowledges that but then somewhere along the line it loses me and it starts to become a movie written by someone trying to send a message rather than stay true to the characters.We knew the message we were going to get going in and it's unquestionably the right one, but I just didn't care for the way Radnor delivered it. What starts as a highly relatable personal journey of self-discovery ends up giving too many easy answers for the more challenging questions the film intelligently asks.

At times I felt almost bludgeoned over the head with its black and white philosophizing which is a real a shame considering the more honest feelings it subtly invoked. It kind of becomes a mess in the third act, but at least it's a fascinating one that has something to say and proves that Radnor definitely has a promising filmmaking future ahead of him when (if?) How I Met Your Mother ends. His forseeable acting future could be taken up playing characters within in the same general realm of his lovelorn, super sensitive Ted Mosby but that's okay. I really like that character and consider Radnor a likable, underrated actor capable of delivering performances that may end up being even better than the really good one he gives here. Because of the rather obvious similarities between Ted and Jesse you wouldn't necessarily be wrong in calling this Ted Mosby: The Movie, and from where I sit there's nothing necessarily wrong with that either. Nor is the fact that Elisabeth Olsen's Zibby ends up being the latest addition into the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" canon. If you look up the very definition of the term there's likely to be a picture of  Zibby right there next to it as it would be difficult to find a character that better exemplifies that infamous (and sometimes unfairly derided) movie trope. But let's be honest. Did anyone really expect Radnor to make a film without a MPDG? I'd almost be disappointed if he didn't. What I don't like are those characters being discarded by the screenplay once they've served their purpose, rendering them practically pointless aside from their role as a life message deliverer.

Certain character types exist because they work when effectively executed and the real reason the MPDG gets more flack than other more insulting stereotypes has to do with the fact that it hits a rather embarrassing nerve for guys, depicting them as insecure and needing to have their lives saved by a woman. Or rather a girl. A free-spirited one who doesn't care a single iota about any issues or flaws they may have. Like any screenwriting creation it's shaded in a certain amount of truth. And also like any, there are good and bad depictions that primarily depend on the integrity of the surrounding narrative. As far as these things go, Olsen's Libby, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Prof. Holberg's colleagues, makes for a textbook MPDG who's smart, pretty and seemingly mature beyond her years. And that's not to mention the fact she writes letters. On actual paper. A real keeper. The only drawback is that she reads Twilight, which horrifies Jesse (and me). While I don't recall that the books are never implicitly mentioned by name it's clear what they're talking about and it soon becomes this hilarious symbol of their age difference and an opportunity for Radnor to go into full Mosby mode, giving a snobby, pretentious speech about how its popularity represents America's declining tastes. It's a fun scene.

Compelling, the film burns through much of its story in the first 25 minutes only to pleasantly reveal that it's just getting started. The meat of their relationship takes place by mail, making it even harder for Jesse to stay away this time. They do seem made for each other which is why it gets so frustrating when Radnor the writer attempts to undercut that in favor of delivering his well-intentioned, but poorly realized message. While there's undeniably a lot wrong with a 35 year-old guy getting involved with a 19-year-old girl and creeping around the dorm and attending parties, Radnor underestimates how good he and Olsen are together at selling something that comes off as the complete opposite. So attempts later to turn this into an American Beauty or Lolita-like situation fall flat because certain plot developments feel overwritten. And it sure doesn't help the cause of his goal that the two of them look around the same age despite Radnor being considerably older. At points the movie is so relentless in its morality it seems like he's trying to have his cake and eat it too by depicting this magical, once-in-a-lifetime connection before telling audiences, "Oh wait, shame on YOU. It's wrong." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Jesse does (or rather doesn't) do something I just couldn't buy. Well, I could buy it, but it felt manufactured to teach a lesson and stands in stark contrast to his actions leading up it. Then sub-plots are piled on top of it and an entire separate story is tagged on involving a bookstore clerk (played by Elizabeth Reaser) that's actually kind of insulting in its obviousness.

The movie's best scenes are on campus with Jesse and Zibby talking and just hanging out. It feels real and Olsen proves she's capable of going to the opposite end of the spectrum as the brainwashed cult follower she darkly portrayed in Martha Marcy May Marlene. As a director Radnor perfectly captures the very specific feeling of a small liberal arts school at that point in someone's life without missing a beat, as well as the wild array of supporting characters you'd encounter there. The great Richard Jenkins serves as the film's sturdy anchor with his heartfelt performance as the retiring Holberg, who's not quite sure he's ready to leave or what to do with himself once he does. His attempts to hang on as long as possible mirror Jesse's and their bond feels like a honest one. Far less successful is a sub-plot involving his old romantics professor, the cold, detached Judith Fairfield (Allison Janey) who seems to exist as a bitch on wheels plot device to provide final act shock value rather than an actual human. Surprisingly, Zac Efron is really effective in a small role as a campus stoner trying to get Jesse to embrace the spontaneity of life while John Magaro impresses as a depressed, emotionally disturbed student he takes under his wing.

Radnor supposedly based this script off a visit he made to his alma mater of Kenyon College in Ohio while promoting his directorial debut a couple of years ago and the strange feelings it invoked. I almost feel guilty not recommending it since I'm a big fan of the actor and it definitely strikes a chord but a story like this can't for a second feel overplotted and needs some room to breathe. All the scenes with he and Olsen are gold and after the first 40 minutes or so you really think this is going somewhere deep, only to just pull back and handle everything with kid gloves.As unfair as it is, I couldn't help but compare it to the all-time greatest college-set dramedy, 2000's Wonder Boys, which tackles a similar topic, but appears to do so effortlessly by showing instead of telling. Or in this case lecturing. While it all doesn't quite come together, I'd still rather watch this again than some better movies that don't screw up as interestingly. It's at least clear coming out of this that Radnor will at some point make a great film. This just wasn't it, too often coming across as overly sensitive and eager to please as its protagonist.

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