January 24, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Josh Radnor’s writing/directing debut happythankyoumoreplease, which played Sundance a couple of years ago, was a promising, entertaining NY-set romantic comedy-drama that hailed from the Woody Allen division of indie film. His second film LIBERAL ARTS, which premiered last night at the festival, still sips from the fount of Woody (in this case, particularly from Manhattan), but it’s an enormous step forward for Radnor as a piece of writing and directing, and one of the most well-rounded and satisfying films of the festival so far.

Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year old alumnus of an Ohio university (much of the film was shot at Radnor’s own alma mater, Kenyon College), who’s now a college administrator in NY. Jesse isn’t unsuccessful, but his life is running in place. He grabs the opportunity to leave town for a few days to help celebrate the retirement of his mentor and favorite–maybe 2d favorite–professor (Richard Jenkins). While there, he makes the acquaintance of smart, gorgeous sophomore Zibby (Elisabeth Olsen), and a more troubled student named Dean (John Magaro).
Liberal Arts is about the ways these relationships change Jesse’s life, but the movie’s strength is that it’s also about the way he changes their lives. Radnor’s script views the process of growing up, and growing older, from the perceptions of a group ranging from teens to 60s, and is fair to all of them. The Jesse/Zibby bond isn’t what you’d expect, and the story’s complications come to seem remarkably like wisdom.
The cast is worthy of a Woody Allen ensemble. Radnor orchestrates Jesse’s mix of confusion, arrogance, compassion and immaturity beautifully. Olsen is, in the end, playing a fantasy of a co-ed, however sensitively imagined, but if there was any doubt about her abilities or star power after martha marcy may marlene, it should vanish now. Richard Jenkins is sultan of American character actors, and Allison Janney, as perhaps Jesse’s all-time favorite professor, has a brief but extremely pungent role. Magaro is moving as Dean, and there’s also (spoiler alert?) an amazingly funny and appealing unbilled turn by Zac Efron. Radnor’s only mistake was in casting a well-known performer in what seems to be a bit part at the start, pretty much telegraphing exactly what the story’s third act is going to be. (It’s like when a former Oscar nominee used to turn up playing a waiter early in an episode of Law & Order and you immediately knew who the killer was.)
Radnor is sometimes too precious for his own good, as in a lengthy montage concerning the joys of classical music, but mostly he has a very steady hand on the directing wheel. Liberal Arts is consistently funny and just as consistently perceptive, and it flows with skill, earning more than a passing grade.
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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."