Friday, January 25, 2013

Liberal Arts/Nobody Walks

Josh Radnor seems very willing to play variations on his self-serious How I Met Your Mother charater; in Liberal Arts, Radnor’s second film as writer-director, he plays a New York admissions counselor named Jesse with a taste for hanging out in bookstores and a habit of expressing his opinions about what other people read. Jesse is invited back to his college by an old professor (Richard Jenkins) who is retiring, and it’s easy to see where Jesse comes by his haughty views on the Twilight books. Jenkins’ character is a man who has gotten away with being an ass for a long time who just realized he needs to connect with other people. It’s a fascinating situation that movies haven’t explored and probably fuel for a movie in itself, but the heart of Liberal Arts is the unlikely connection between Jesse and an undergrad named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) whom he meets on his weekend back at school. Radnor has grown in confidence as a director since his debut, and he’s not afraid to include a a long voice-over sequence of Jesse and Zibby’s letters to each other or to concern himself with such unlikely subjects as the fact that there are things older than us in the world and the way that a liberal arts education does or doesn’t prepare one for adult life. Rather less happens in Liberal Arts than might be expected but that isn’t a flaw, since what turns the relationship between Jesse and Zibby is the fact that even when you don’t feel like an adult you still have to act like one. Actors seem to love Radnor; Olsen is just the right mix of winning and naïve and Allison Janney has a terrific sequence as a Jesse’s bitter former Romantic poetry professor. (There’s also a barely recognizable Zac Efron as a campus sage.) The opening titles of Liberal Arts recall the classic style of Woody Allen’s titles. I don’t know if that choice is a tip to where Radnor sees his career going, but Liberal Arts feels like a voice being found.

Nobody Walks, directed by Ry Russo-Young (who cowrote with Lena Dunham), is another film low on incident but not the worse for it. A New York filmmaker named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) comes to Los Angeles to stay with Peter (John Krasinski) and his therapist wife Julie (Rosemarie Dewitt). Peter, a sound editor, is helping Martine finish a film, and the two’s working in close quarters leads to an attraction that is felt at different levels of intensity. Russo-Young is good at suggesting the way that California life isolates Peter’s family and how Martine’s more sensual approach to living shakes them up. Thirlby is terrific, nailing that sense of someone who is just adult enough to be dangerous, and Krasinski gets to play some interesting new notes of domestic desperation. Nobody Walks doesn’t end so much as it stops, and the choice not to impose an ending on this material was the right one. Olivia Thirlby makes a strong transition to adult roles here, and Nobody Walks might best be seen as a calling card both for her and her director.

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