Every young filmmaker dreams of getting their debut into Sundance and hopes that if it goes over well, they can turn that buzz into a distribution deal with a successful theatrical run not far behind. But getting in to the festival is only the beginning. Even if your film is a hit, Sundance audiences are not always the most reliable indicator of what will click with audiences outside the buzzy confines of Park City. Just ask “How I Met Your Mother” actor Josh Radnor, whose debut film as a writer/director "Happythankyoumoreplease" received the audience award back in 2010 only to hit theaters over a year later and fizzle with critics and audiences (though the film has developed a following since becoming available on Netflix Instant). Radnor is back this year with his sophomore effort "Liberal Arts," which has already garnered comparisons to some of his cinematic idols and received not one but two standing ovations during festival screenings. Whether that buzz will translate into a wider audience is anybody's guess but right now things are looking pretty good for the actor-turned-filmmaker.
Here Radnor casts himself as Jesse, a 35-year-old liberal arts college grad living in NYC and working in the admissions department of a local university. Recently dumped and bored with his job, Jesse jumps at the chance to visit his alma mater after he receives an invitation from an old professor (Richard Jenkins) to come see him off at his retirement dinner. Upon arriving he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore, and the two bond over a shared love of literature, music and poetry. Since, according to Jesse, college is really the only place you could tell somebody you’re a poet without getting punched, the two form an instant connection. After bumping into her at a party their connection starts to deepen as the contrast between immature college boys and her new friend becomes apparent to Zibby. Though Jesse worries that he’s either stunted or she’s accelerated, he’s captivated by her anyway and continues cautiously, keeping things platonic.
When Jesse returns to New York, Zibby gives him a mix CD comprised of classical music and opera and the two begin exchanging handwritten letters (at her request) changing both their outlooks. Even Jesse’s formerly contentious relationship with his city is altered by listening to the swell of Beethoven’s symphonies. Radnor is an amiable lead performer -- though his character is neurotic (he doesn’t travel by plane), intellectual (he’s constantly buried in a book) and hung up on a much younger woman -- he still manages to charm. But his greatest strength may be assembling an ensemble of terrific performers to team up with. In her first romantic lead, it’s great to see Olsen in a role that doesn’t require her to be tormented and you can really see her blossoming as a performer. She is so effortlessly endearing here and radiates such maturity that you’re never creeped out by the idea of her and Radnor’s characters getting together despite her being 16 years his junior (illustratedly hilariously in a sequence where Jesse actually does this math).
Jenkins’ professor Hoberg gets some strong notes to play as well, both pointed and plaintive. Playing Jesse’s “other favorite professor,” Allison Janney not only steals her scenes but just about walks away with the entire film desipte the fact that she really only has a few minutes of dialogue. Her presence alone inspired howls from the audience at the fest. In the most surprising turn in the film, Zac Efron plays Nat, an enthusiastic stoner who prefers to get high on life and ends up as a sounding board for Jesse, dispensing mystical advice that turns out to be helpful. At one point Jesse remarks, “I’m not even sure you’re real.” Along his road to maturity, Jesse ends up mentoring troubled Dean (John Magaro) after the two form an unlikely bond over a depressing novel and meeting Ana (Elizabeth Reaser from "Young Adult") a book store girl that may be more of Jesse’s equal.
Some of the insights are a bit simplistic (you can drop the pretense and enjoy crap if it makes you happy) but for most of the running time, the film is an enjoyable diversion. Only occasionally does it hit the wrong dramatic notes. The music is overbearing at times and there are a few too many endings that circle back to wrap up a story thread you may have already forgotten about, but his heart is clearly in the right place. Radnor, an acclaimed Broadway actor as well as sitcom star, ended up on the other side of a camera by necessity and the transition is suiting him pretty well. It may be tempting to draw comparisons between Radnor and another neurotic intellectual writer/director/actor but he seems more interested in developing his own voice than paying homage to his cinematic forebearers. The twice-celebrated Sundance director told us if he looked at his first film he’d find some things that might make him cringe now and the same may be true of his sophomore effort a few years down the line. But with a learning curve this steep, it’s a matter of time before a wide audience catches up with the crowds in Park City. [B-]