Josh Radnor’s second feature, much like his first, happythankyoumoreplease, earns a solid “eh,” but what a pretty little “eh” it is. Dappled alternately with mitigated cuteness and politely restrained melodrama, it’s the pleasantly bittersweet story of Jesse (played by Radnor), who pines for the safety of the rural liberal arts college from which he has long since graduated, and Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student he romances over several trips back. To complicate things, Zibby is a close family friend of his beloved mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Jesse agonizes over the affair—does he really feel for the girl, or is he merely clinging to his youth?
Radnor poses a great question here, and it’s precisely because of his intelligence that the film sits apart from the standard fare. In its form alone, there’s nothing much new happening: boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, boy retreats. Radnor’s work as a director is second behind his adherence to the broad conventions of the romantic comedy, and despite a good deal of leeway he allows his actors in their individual performances (not necessarily always a good thing, as in the case of Richard Jenkins’ overly emotive moments, or even in Radnor’s own hammy tendencies), the characters fit squarely into their own types. One notable exception, and more proof that Radnor is attempting to achieve something beyond just mindless entertainment, is Zac Efron’s hippied-out mystic.
Yes, you heard me. Zac Efron is excellent as Nat, an earthy straight-edge undergrad who Jesse finds ruminating on the quad one night and quickly befriends. He’s a balanced, positive thinker who gets high on life and a Nalgene full of spring water. His tidbits on life philosophy are far better—and delivered with more commitment—than Jesse’s constant string of sarcastic one-liners. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Liberal Arts is a cheese fest from start to finish—Radnor likes it that way—and I just found myself embracing Nat’s holistic energy (and his homemade tai chi) far easier than I could stomach Jesse’s perpetual, bordering on whiny, angst. If it sounds like I’m justifying liking Zac Efron, it’s because I am.
Elizabeth Olsen, who shares DNA with the infamous tabloid twins, is fabulously talented, but Zibby as a character, through no fault of her own, is fairly unremarkable. This is not to say that the usual conventions of the love-and-then-breakup story aren’t touching. In witnessing Zibby’s small but epic journey through infatuation and heartbreak, don’t be surprised if you cry. You’re supposed to. For an intelligent and thoughtful film, however, there’s just not a lot of originality.
Radnor’s blissful passage from sitcom to art house has been like a water birth. From the warmth and safety of the 30-minute weekly show to the equally gooey rom-com, he’s a newborn floating from the womb into a pacific bath, easing into the world before weathering the harsh and chilly air to which he is unused. With his psyche beautifully absent of even the slightest trauma, he proceeds. And if that’s the kind of movie you’re looking for, Liberal Arts opens this month.