Maui Film Festival: ‘Liberal Arts’ Review

When Josh Radnor comes to mind, you think “Ted Mosby, Architect.” I know I do. His role on How I Met Your Mother has cast quite a daunting shadow on the actor’s career. It makes you wonder if he’ll ever make a successful transition to film like his co-stars already have. Alyson Hannigan has starred in the American Pie franchise as our favorite band geek whose unhealthy attachment to her flute made her a comic delight. Jason Segel hit it big as writer and star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and last year’s memorable treat The Muppets. Cobie Smulders is already on the horizon after a sexy and fierce turn as Agent Maria Hill in this year’s must-see-it-more-than-once geek fest The Avengers. And don’t even get me started on Neil Patrick Harris. All that’s left is Josh Radnor. You’d think that maybe he’s just stuck in the boundaries of television. However, after getting the chance to see his new film Liberal Arts at this year’s Maui Film Festival, I think it’s safe to say that Teddy Westside can bring it.

Josh Radnor stars as Jesse Fisher, a 35 year old college admissions counselor who’s a bit of a bookworm and wholly dissatisfied with his life. Like the students who come and go in his office, he too was drawn to the romance of college, the wonders of literature, and the endless possibilities of a higher education. But in the real world, all that knowledge is pretty much useless. So when his former English professor invites him back to Kenyon College for his retirement dinner, he jumps at the offer. There, he meets a vibrant young sophomore named Zibby, and the two strike up an odd relationship that takes them further away from their boring lives and deeper into the beauty of, dare I say, the liberal arts.

The film succeeds by focusing on its two leads. Radnor breathes new life into the disillusioned Jesse, and his charm has never been so uplifting. It’s quite an outstanding turn by Radnor. He manages to shake off the mold of his television persona and become a character who’s only now coming of age. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without the irresistible Elizabeth Olsen. Even though this is Radnor’s film, he allows his female counterpart to shine in just the right places. Olsen shows great range here, maintaining the image of a frustrated youth all while exhibiting such an alluring magnetism. It’s a charming glee that is simply infectious. The girl is a star, and Radnor knows just what to do with a promising talent.

Along the way, we met a slew of interesting characters. Some fall short, while others bring forth character arcs that help round out the film. Richard Jenkins plays the cynical English professor who realizes that he may not want to retire just yet. With Jenkins in the role, he exudes this cool, yet crude atmosphere, even as he wanders around with his ridiculous floral print shirts. Alison Janney has a bit of fun playing the seductive romantics professor, whose interplay with Jesse is just plain awkward and hilarious. Zac Efron makes a surprising appearance in the film as Nat, a shamanistic stoner with ideals that border along brilliance and stupidity. It’s ultimately a forgettable role, but also one that proves he’s ready to break free from his teen-idol image. And then we have poor little John Magaro as Dean, a manic depressive student struggling to adapt to college life. The similarities between Dean and Jesse are implied, but never explored. All we have are a few scenes which don’t really add any depth to Dean, or further his arc. The only resolution he gets is a meager exchange of words in a hospital bed. It’s a shame because the role had potential, but in the end it’s somewhat of a letdown.

Radnor’s writing is the real achievement. He’s created entertaining characters and thrown them into relationships that are closely tied together, unlike in his 2010 feature film debut happythankyoumoreplease, which was overcrowded with too many characters and as a result, overwhelmed the film’s narrative focus. Liberal Arts is a much more focused effort, drawing on likeable leads to drive the story and providing just enough supporting characters to help carry the film through its slower moments. What I’ve noticed about Radnor’s writing so far is his ability to create strong female characters. He proved it in his first film with Mississippi, which was a star-making turn for the loveable Kate Mara. Now, Radnor has done it again with Zibby, and he’s found a more than capable actress to pull it off.

Aside from character development, Radnor’s touch on dialogue is exceptional. The exchanges between characters are wonderfully poignant, yet funny and casual enough to feel real. Even when they have heated debates on literature and the humanities, they never spell anything out for the audience and instead allow us to come to our own conclusions. Another noteworthy feat is Radnor’s concentration on storytelling. A majority of the film is spent on Jesse and Zibby’s quirky relationship, and never wasting a moment to make fun of their 16-year age difference. They write letters to each other, trade music, and discuss books. And though their lives get more and more hilarious as they go along, their fantasy eventually comes crashing down with the realization that they shouldn’t be together. That’s what makes Josh Radnor the talented writer that he is. As fantastical and wildly outrageous as the story may get, he never forgets the element of reality. And we all know that reality has a mean roundhouse kick. Every story needs a conflict, and this one is still very much a joy to see unfold.

Radnor wrote, directed, and starred in this indie-arthouse flick that has already stirred quite the buzz at Sundance. The most recent venue was here on Maui, where he was honored with the Triple-Threat Award for his brilliant work so far. And deservedly so. Radnor has taken what he’s learned from his debut feature happythankyoumoreplease and refined it with sheer confidence and remarkable wit, all wrapped in a dramedy that is easily accessible to mainstream audiences. The beauty of Liberal Arts is that it doesn’t try to mimic any of the typical college party movies that have come before it. Instead, Radnor has crafted a sincere portrait of his alma mater that transcends even further by going off in the other, more truthful direction. In the end, the film actually has something to say about life, and I think we all need to hear it. Verdict: See it!

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