By Owen Gleiberman
January 26, 2012 at 04:39 PM EST
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Robot & Frank

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Elizabeth Olsen, who was last year’s Sundance It Girl, deserved the terrific reviews she got for Martha Marcy May Marlene. But since the character she was playing was such a spacy languid cult baby, a young woman who’d smudged out her identity and was trying to get it back, the movie still left me wondering: Did Olsen, skillful as she was, have much of a personality? Was she really a star? If, like me, you weren’t sure, then the college comedy Liberal Arts answers the question: She is every inch a star. This dryly affectionate and super-sharp movie was written and directed by its leading man, Josh Radnor, who is like Paul Rudd’s puppyish kid brother and who has cast himself as Jesse, a menschy, bearded 35-year-old admissions counselor in New York City who returns to his leafy, idyllic Midwestern liberal-arts college to help honor his favorite English professor (Richard Jenkins), who’s retiring.

During the weekend, which Jesse spends reveling in wistful lit-major memories, he meets Zibby (Olsen), a precocious 19-year-old sophomore, and the sparks fly. I almost didn’t say “precocious,” because in movies, that’s inevitably a code word for someone so snarky and glib and wiser than her years that she’s the kind of character who exists only in movies. You could say that that’s Zibby, except that Olsen, perky but moody, apple-cheeked and intellectually avid, made me believe everything she was saying. She doesn’t just recite her lines — she owns them. She turns being wiser than her years into a wittily authentic generational condition.

Jesse, who used to be the new generation but is learning that in this culture that makes you old fast, has a touch of melancholy and a sheepish, easy way with women. He’s a reasonably well-adjusted dude, with nothing terribly wrong in his life, but after a dozen years in the real world, he misses the romance of college, that budding bloom of possibility, that belief that literature can matter so much. Radnor, who’s made one other film, Happythankyoumoreplease (it took the 2010 Sundance Audience Award, though I never got to see it), and is best known as the star of How I Met Your Mother, is that rare thing: a writer-director who thinks like an actor but still knows how to create a comedy with shape and vision. Liberal Arts is the best movie about college I’ve seen since I don’t know what. Radnor nails the castle-in-the-air mood of privileged dislocation, and he comes up with fluky, spot-on campus types, from Jenkins’ majestically rumpled and cynical prof (he wears the ugliest shirts in the world and thinks, quite touchingly, that they’re cool) to Zac Efron as a mystic-hippie stoner in a wool cap (Efron, tossing away his teen-idol persona, is hilarious) to John Magoro as Dean, a brilliant, troubled bookworm who can’t find an entry point into life on the quadrangle.

At a coffee shop, he and Jesse strike up a conversation about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, yet the title and the author are never mentioned, which lends the conversation a playful, lifelike intimacy that lures us in. Radnor isn’t doing a literary name-drop; he’s really out to capture how when you’re in college a book like that, and talking about a book like that, can change your life. Later, Jesse and Zibby have more book banter, though in this case they’re arguing about the Twilight series, a “light” disagreement that turns into their first fight, and it’s a brilliantly written scene, like one of Tarantino’s pop-obsessive debates given surprise emotional resonance.

What does the movie make of these two as a couple? It presents their connection as casual yet engulfing, with Jesse, the older dude, sparked not just by Zibby’s youthful erotic radiance but by the discovery that, deep down, she’s a fellow old soul, and Zibby, bored with the passive young men of the girl-power era, looking to fall for someone who upends her expectations. Olsen brings the role an elegant sensuality — she’s like Vera Farmiga crossed with the young Faye Dunaway. Jesse and Zibby write letters to each other in longhand (in homage to the lovers of an earlier era), and they get along swimmingly until the moment arrives to sleep together. At that point, Radnor proves to be such an honorable filmmaker that he may be a little too conservative for his own good. Liberal Arts is a bit soft. It needs every wild card it has, like Allison Janney’s performance as a sexy, hard-bitten, whiskey-swilling professor of British romantic poetry. The movie is about becoming an adult, which it recognizes to be a rite of passage that now takes place, for so many of us, way after college, with undergraduate life, at least if you’re a liberal-arts major, as the fabulous playpen you’ve got to crawl out of.

* * * *

Robot & Frank is the rare Sundance crowd-pleaser I genuinely liked. It’s sentimental high-concept fluff that works. The movie, set in a not-so-distant future (which looks a lot like the present except that there are funny cars and robots), stars Frank Langella, who is such a fantastic actor that he couldn’t hit a false note in a Windex commercial. He plays a lonely old man named Frank who is losing his memory and spends most of his time puttering around his cozy, messy home in the historic Hudson River town of Cold Spring, New York. Frank is depressed, but he’s also a former cat burglar — he served years in prison — who hasn’t lost his wily, amoral spirit. When his adult son (James Marsden), who can’t take care of him, buys him a robot housekeeper, he’s annoyed at first, but then he makes the droid his assistant and comrade, using him as a partner on late-night burglaries.

The robot looks like a sleek retro version of a space-age contraption from the 1960s, and he sounds a lot like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (it wasn’t until the closing credits that I learned it was the voice of Peter Sarsgaard). Yet the smartest thing that the director, Jake Schreier, did was to not make him adorably anthropomorphic. The robot doesn’t start to say cute and witty things, or to develop a “personality” — he really is a machine, programmed in every response. Because he’s so fluent and cooperative, though, he still starts to feel like he’s got a personality to Frank. These two become friends because neither of them is quite connected to anyone else. Langella brings the film a gruff magic, giving Frank glints of anger and despair that dry out what might have been a tritely annoying buddy movie. Robot & Frank really is a trifle; it putters along, sort of like Frank. Yet it also delighted and touched me.

Watch Owen discuss these and other notable Sundance flicks with movies reporter Adam B. Vary

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Robot & Frank

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