Movies as fun, warm-hearted and terrifically scripted as this don’t come along regularly. Surprisingly, we’ve had two in one month – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and now Liberal Arts, a romantic comedy with wit, intelligence, and a fabulous group of talented actors.
Josh Radner, famous for his television comedy work, writes, directs and stars in the film. He plays a 35 year old man working in admissions at a university. He lives in New York, but yearns to return to the happiness of his time as a student himself. When his old professor (Richard Jenkins – wonderful, obviously) asks him to come down to the campus of his past.
There he meets a current student who he immediately seems to connect with. When he returns to New York, they continue to be friends, communicating through handwritten letters which express enthusiasm for classical music and works of great literature. However, our protagonist starts to worry about the age difference of 16 years between them. Is it too much? Or should he just go for it?
This type of plot could easily have formed the basis of a simple, weak and predictable movie. But instead of assuming his audience is stupid, Radner aimiably leads the viewer along some of the surprising twists and turns of the narrative without ever letting the magic fade. His script is beautifully written – a delicious blend of Aaron Sorkin meets Woody Allen – and his central performance is worthy of an Oscar.
Elizabeth Olsen is also marvellous, and I’m delighted that her progression up the acting ladder is going so well. She really impressed me (and the rest of the world, it seems) with her turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and although this is a very different picture, her performance is no less memorable. There is also a great supporting appearance from Zac Efron. I have always championed the talents of Efron and here he continues to blossom in a very unshowy role.
There will be cynics who find fault with Radner’s unashamed celebration of art and culture. They will pick holes in the romance and object to the conclusion. They are perfectly entitled to do this. But for me, Liberal Arts is a gorgeously rich experience. It is a film of colour and passion and deserves a far wider audience than I suspect it will get.
Liberal Arts (2012), directed by Josh Radner, is distributed in the UK by Picture House Entertainment and Revolver Entertainment, Certificate 12A.