Customer Reviews: Liberal Arts
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on July 4, 2013
With so many heartbreaking films in the cinema today, it is refreshing to encounter and engage with Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts, a heart mending film. A film that dares to say that things aren't that bad, in a time when cynicism runs rampant through the streets. And I don't know about you, but I could use a healthy dose of optimism in the movies I watch. Josh Radnor grabs cynicism by the shoulder and gently leads him out of the movie theater, while calmly embracing compassion, awareness, and unabashed optimism. Josh Radnor may just be the soul that saves all of our weary souls. Josh's innate ability to create and inspire is one of the most over-looked talents today. How is this guy not on the front page of the newspaper every day? If you haven't seen Liberal Arts, then you need to get on that. It is by no means a run of the mill romantic comedy with cliched dialogue and unrealistic dramatic debacles. It is a beautiful symphony of impeccable directorial finesse, precise subtle nuanced acting, and a wonderfully aware script with resonant quotes that stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

Josh's clear vision for Liberal Arts really paid off. The beautiful cadence with which each actor speaks is unmatched by any other movie(not that it's a competition, but it's totally a competition, and Liberal Arts wins, by a landslide, a very peaceful landslide that has no casualties, just bruised egos perhaps). With these unique, intriguing characters, it's no wonder there is never a dull moment in this movie. Jesse Fisher(Josh Radnor), is a 35-year old college admissions counselor, who is less than enthused about his career, and returns to his alma mater, Kenyon College, for one of his favorite professor's retirement dinners. While on campus, he becomes entranced by the spirited, effervescent Zibby(Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year old student, and complications ensue. A pleasant surprise in the film is the affable, ethereal Nat(Zac Ephron), who extoles wisdom effortlessly and with grace, as if he is plugged in to some universal truth. The cast is rounded out with Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, and John Magaro, who each give stellar performances in their own right. Richard Jenkins is an absolute delight, bringing his trademark wonderful energy to the film. He plays Professor Peter Hoberg, who is struggling with his retirement from teaching. Allison Janney is at her best, playing a spit fire of a character as Jesse's former teacher. Elizabeth Reaser gives an endearing performance as a lovable bookworm who crosses Jesse's path. And last but definitely not least, John Magaro gives a moving performance as a student struggling to find his place in the collegiate world. With so many great characters, it is difficult not to relate to them all (note: unless you are emotionally devoid). A beautifully sad common thread that strings these characters together is their dissatisfaction with the way things are. Perhaps the real message behind Liberal Arts is that if you can stop struggling against life, and just go with the flow, you will be happier for it. You will realize that, "Everything is okay," as the ever-present Nat reminds us.

Liberal Arts is not only about love and the intricacies of relationships, it's a celebration of books and music, while also being a great mirror for some self-reflection. It deals with a multitude of subjects such as: morality, grace, rejection, self-esteem, divinity, ethics, and aging. With the jaded perspective of our society being that youth is good and aging in any way, shape, or form is bad, it is uniquely refreshing to hear that aging can be a lovely process that you get to take part in. Beyond just that, I believe that Radnor is also trying to reveal to his audience that any part of life can be enjoyed, even if, or perhaps, especially if, society has marked it as unenjoyable. It is all about your perspective, and how you perceive the event to unfold. In addition to being just blatantly brilliant, Liberal Arts has these delectable morsels of inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout the film. Here are just a few of my favorites: "Any place you don't leave is a prison", "Grace, I realized, is neither time nor place dependent; all we need is the right soundtrack", and "Fortune never smiles on those who say no". These lovely, luminous gems in this soul-satisfying movie carry with them an enduring resonance. Don't be surprised when you find yourself, days later, contemplating them in a reverie.

You can enjoy the ninety-seven minutes of Liberal Arts and then go back to your normal everyday life, or you can fully embrace the sage advice that lives within the movie, let it permeate your soul, and permanently improve the circumstances of your life. Simply allow your mind to ruminate on the heartfelt wisdom of the movie. Let the words and ideas roll around in your head and in your heart, like clothes in a dryer, until they are carefully arranged and neatly folded in your mind. Watching Liberal Arts is like eating a delicately planned out meal in a restaurant. You may not know how it was made, or what exactly is in it, but by the end, you leave with a delightful feeling in your gut, a happy smile on your face, and an overall pleasant feeling of satiety. Feeling like you are in on a life secret. While watching it, you get this feeling that you are basking in greatness; that there is something greater than yourself struggling to emerge. Like any great movie, you walk out of it not only with a huge grin on your face, but also believing that the characters really do exist somewhere out in the world. To me, there is no greater compliment to a writer than that.

It's as if somehow Josh Radnor found his way into your mind, extracted all the worthy treasures of your subconscious, then took everything that you have wanted to express and say to the world, and turned it into this wonderful, heartfelt movie. Pinpointing emotions you didn't know that you had. Extoling wisdom that you wish you had been able to put into words. Josh Radnor is daring to blaze a trail into uncharted territory in Hollywood, creating a genuinely uplifting film. Trying to break down the walls of cliched, predictable, explosion-driven movies, and attempting to build up the confidence of the audience. A rare trait for any filmmaker to exude these days. And he does it with such elegance and grace, finding a way straight into our hearts.
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It's fair to say that I wasn't a huge fan of Josh Radnor's first film as a writer/director "Happythankyoumoreplease." While the movie had promise and some strong points, it veered a little too far into preciousness and quirk for my taste. I might have been in the minority, though, as the film scored an Audience Award at Sundance. But for me, many of its plot digressions seemed a little too contrived to be taken seriously. In his second effort, "Liberal Arts," I find myself having a similar reaction. Overall, though, the movie works much more cohesively. It strikes some irresistibly bittersweet moments and features some winning performances. But every time Radnor scores with a heartfelt, affectionate, or funny scene, he counters with something too convenient or unbelievable to follow it up. Simply put, "Liberal Arts" is a good movie (sometimes very good) that struggles to find a consistent tone. Radnor has talent as both a writer and director, sometimes he just needs to rein in the artificiality that comes with excessive quirk.

"Liberal Arts" relies on a middle-aged nostalgia for one's college days. As a central theme, it is one that strikes a real emotional chord and is something that many of us can easily identify with. Radnor plays a New York City resident who is invited to his small town alma mater to honor a favorite professor (Richard Jenkins). The two men share an easy bond and their scenes together have a quiet poignancy and effectiveness. While there, Radnor becomes entangled with a feisty co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) despite their sixteen year age difference. There are some fresh comic moments throughout. I especially liked an uncredited Zac Effron as an ethereal life force that connects rather fancifully with Radnor. But there are also moments of deep sadness. Jenkins struggles with his life choices and Radnor has to face the realities of his relationship with the younger Olsen. What does it mean to finally grow up? That's the position Radnor finds himself confronting.

The movie has some terrific highlights. Jenkins is great. Allison Janney has an amusing, but brief, side plot. But for me, the movie all but belongs to Olsen. She's so likable and, more importantly, so believable. It's hard to imagine not falling in love with her. Breezy and heartfelt in equal measures, she epitomizes every idealistic crush you might have experienced. When she's on screen the movie soars. I might have lived without a couple of peripheral stories like Radnor inexplicably befriending a troubled student. This is one of the developments that seems far more scripted than real. Still, "Liberal Arts" has its heart in the right place. It strikes an appropriately wistful tone and should be an appealing diversion to most. While I wanted to love it (and I did love the central plot of the film), I merely liked it due to some of the extraneous choices. About 3 1/2 stars for me, I'll round up for Olsen who is becoming an increasingly impressive young actress. KGHarris, 12/12.
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on October 27, 2014
I tried to like this. No, really. I wanted to like it so, so badly. Josh Radnor is a really talented guy, and Roger Ebert gave "Liberal Arts" a good review.

Yeah. Well. The movie wasn't completely hideous. It had its good points. There just weren't enough to make it all worth it. First of all, I absolutely get Jesse's desire to go down Memory Lane and reconnect with what made life exciting. We've all done that at one point (or several). However, Jesse makes some bizarre choices along the way. As a writer, I understand that characters don't always do what they're supposed to, but some actions are so out of left-field that the audience can't help but get weirded out. The weirdest moment for me in "Liberal Arts" was seeing Jesse turn down sex with a nineteen-year old, but then jump in bed with his former lit professor. This is a slightly disturbing chain of events as it is, but what made it jump the shark was Jesse's own incredulous expression when Professor What's-Her-Name is seducing him. How does he go from that to watching her light a post-coital cigarette from the other side of her bed?

Again, I get where Radnor was coming from here, but the overall product was disappointing. Just a little bit of tweaking would have made this film a winner. But, hindsight, right? I still like Josh Radnor, and I'm looking forward to seeing whatever he's got ahead of him.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon September 24, 2012
Now THIS is one to watch for! It is witty, intelligent, well-acted, adult, textured and beautifully acted, with a gorgeous soundtrack. Our 2012 Seattle International Film Festival audience could scarcely contain ourselves as we exited the theater. We had watched decent people trying to cope with the vagaries of growing up, each at his or her own pace, each with his or her own degree of success.

Let's look at some of these nice people:
* Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") is Jesse, an Admissions officer for a New York City school, called to give a speech for a former professor who is retiring at his old alma mater. He is a bookworm who says a dual English/History degree should make a graduate fully unemployable. He meets a couple of undergrads while visiting his old campus.
* Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") is Zibby, a young woman wise for her years but who views a relationship with our hero as a possible short-cut to maturity. She gives him a mix-tape filled with works by dead white males, i.e., European composers Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Shubert. That is his FIRST surprise from her! She is smart, decent and has great insight. And she LOVES "snail mail."
* John Magaro ("My Soul to Take") is Dean, the other student our hero meets on campus. This guy hates hyperbole and is terminally depressed! He keeps re-reading a book written by an author who killed himself. He's attending college because he got a "full ride" scholarship and his single mom is "soooo proud!"
* Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") is Peter Hoberg, the professor trying to make the difficult transition to retirement.
* Allison Janney ("The Help") is Judith Fairfield, the acerbic professor who helped our hero learn to love dead white males (in this case the Romantic poets). She thinks he has a "gooey heart!"
* Elizabeth Reaser (the "Twilight" trilogy) is Ana, who works in a bookstore. She notices he reads dead white males, authors who shall remain nameless.
* Zac Efron ("The Lucky One") is Nat, who may or may not exist....

Writer/director Josh Radnor ("Happythankyoumoreplease") has a great future ahead. He doesn't talk down to his audience, his characters are literate, witty, decent and earnest. The soundtrack is absolutely wonderful and Radnor's bittersweet views on aging and age differences are very realistic. We laughed at his stunned reaction to a "Vampire" trilogy. This is top notch! will notify me when the DVD is available.
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on September 30, 2012
I just watched this movie last night at a theater on the campus of Florida Atlantic University and it was one of the best movies I've seen all year. I mention that it was on a university campus because the staff, all undergraduates, thought the movies was terrific, so it isn't just the opinion of middle aged guys like me. Usually, if I see a movie in the theater, I don't get the DVD, but I will buy this one.

Unlike most American movies - even indy's these days - this is a movie that respects its screenwriter. As a result, in plot and dialogue, it is like many foreign movies: designed for serious minded people, grown-ups, which is appropriate for a movie about growing up (no matter how old you are) and the limits of intellect without character. It is hard for me to define the ideas of the movies without making it sound dull, but it is also extraordinarily funny. Even now, 24 hours after I saw the movie, lines of dialogue or certain scenes keep coming back to me, alternately making me laugh or ponder the wisdom of the film, from the hilariously unromantic date with an inspired professor of romantic literature to the trenchant observation that "guilt before you act is morality," this will be a movie I will want to watch many times.
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on July 9, 2016
I really liked this story of a guy (played by Josh Radnor) who loved his college experience, he was still stuck in the academia mindset, and relished his invitation to go back to the campus to attend the retirement party of one of his favorite professors. While there he becomes friends with a student (16 years his junior) and debates whether to take it beyond friendship. My favorite part is when he gets back to New York and narrates a letter he sent her giving her his mobile experiences while listing to the classical music CD mix she gave him. Those narrative scenes scored with the music excerpts from the CD were very good. I didn't recognize Zac Efron as the guy playing the crazy campus hippie until I read it in one of these reviews. Didn't really get that casting decision or his desire to play the part unless it was to show his acting skill beyond the stereotype hunky, sexy leading man. The sub-plot of the Josh Radnor character, who loved college, helping a bi-polar genius student who hates it to the point of attempted suicide, was a nice touch.
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on October 8, 2013
Excellent actors who are believable, strong, funny and just quirky enough to remind you of someone you know. Time flies by and the twists and turns keep you on your toes. Just when you thinks you have it all figured out, you don't. In the end, the film will be on your mind for a few days while you contemplate the rich story and great characters. Most likely, you'll watch it many times in the future. I still am.
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on February 22, 2013
This is so well written. Nice humor blended in to some real relationships. Doesn't go according to normal Hollywood script and has such a payoff for those who want to experience life and people. Nice performance and wonderful dialogue that makes you think about life. For those with a "gooey" heart and a desire for a good story, this is for you.
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on April 18, 2016
There's no "Plastics" moment in Josh Radnor's smart, under-the radar gem Liberal Arts, you know, the moment when the entire artifice of youthful idealism is left in shambles by the impending compromises of adulthood - captured forever in the genius of one, eternal catch-phrase. What the film delivers is a deft, finely crafted screenplay full of uncanny wit and wisdom that examines the intersecting lives of five past and present citizens of Ohio's leafy green collegiate oasis, Kenyon College.

Through the prism of a forced retirement "party" for Political Science Professor Peter Hoberg (another gem from veteran character actor Richard Jenkins) Radnor's, Josh, a Kenyon Alum who is now battling the first stages of mid-life ennui as a university admissions officer in NYC, returns as reluctant toastmaster for his mentors party. Josh is a slightly sullen man of letters who reads while he walks and can never pass an independent bookstore unexplored.

While there, he meets Elizabeth Olsen's "Zibby," a precocious, lithe and winsome 19 y/o undergrad who can't wait to fast forward through her messy twenties straight into Radnor's mid-thirties world of importance and intellectual rigor, or so she thinks. I have to admit that very early on I was eyeing the exit button on the remote fully expecting this potentially over-the-top, girl meets world gabfest to make me regret the "talkie" was ever invented. To my eternal surprise their conversations and old-school letter writings were surprisingly realistic and genuine almost foreshadowing a relationship better suited to the intimacy of unbreakable friendship than the intimacy of the darkened room.

Along the way Josh runs into a philosopher-stoner named Nat (Zac Efron doing his best Jeff Spicoli) and the manic-depressive, perpetually suicidal campus genius, Dean (an engaging performance by John Maguro) who are there to give color and dimension to the edges of the plot-line but are not essential.

The only sour note is turned in from a usually reliable scene-stealer, Allison Janney who was Josh's favorite professor as an undergrad but is now nothing but a loveless husk, whose joie de vivre has been drained by a life of too few human connections and too many barrooms. She is the bold-face (and wholly unnecessary) Mrs. Robinson to Radnor's Benjamin Braddock who almost single handedly upends the poignancy of a remarkable script.

For what could have very easily been a throwaway rom-com dressed in oxfords and chinos, Liberal Arts is a slyly perceptive take on human transitions and the endless forks-in-the road that many seldom see. It is extremely well produced and scripted, minus of course the manic ride in the Alfa Romeo and is well worth your time.
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Must say I couldn't agree more with the Entertainment Weekly quote on the cover that "' 'Liberal Arts' is dryly affectionate, super sharp and the best movie about college since I don't know what."

Admittedly, the 5th of the stars I'm giving this flick probably has something to do with my having been, like our hero here, a Liberal Arts English major at an Ohio college who's been long gone, never went back and has sometimes wondered what doing so might be like. Well, now I kinda sorta know, at least from a warm and fuzzy opposite gender perspective.

Kudos to writer/director/leading man/former fellow Ohio liberal arts English major collegian Josh Radnor. And apologies for not having heard about it until it popped up among my Netflix recommendations the other day and then turned out being for sale here.
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