A group of friends attend their 10-year high school reunion. Those friends include Jake (Channing Tatum) and his girlfriend, Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), Cully (Chris Pratt) and his wife, Sam (Ari Gaynor), Marty (Justin Long), A.J (Max Minghella), Garrity (Brian Geraghty), Olivia (Aubrey Plaza), Elise (Kate Mara), Andre (Anthony Mackie) and Reeves (Oscar Isaac). Jake wants to propose to his wife, but has second thoughts after he meets his high school flame, Mary (Rosario Dawson), at the reunion.
Writer/director Jamie Linden plays the drama too safely while the moments of well-needed comic relief fall flat. Not much happens to the characters that's engaging or memorable. They just sort of drift from Point A to Point B. Moreover, the one or two quotable lines can be found in the theatrical trailer which sells this film as a fast-paced comedy despite that it's far from it. In fact, many scenes move at too slow of a pace. Audrey Plaza, who was quite charismatic and radiant in Safety Not Guaranteed, is unfortunately underused here. Ea cast gives decent, heartfelt performances, but they're undermined by the banal screenplay that makes them their characters quite boring. There's simply not much going on that captivates your heart and mind or at least entertains you on a visceral level. People getting drunk and toilet-papering a tree isn't funny or interesting here. Had Linden taken more risks and either veered the film more toward comedy or drama, 10 Years wouldn't be so trite and underwhelming.
35-year-old Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) visits his alma mater in Ohio when his professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) invites him to speak at his retirement dinner. At the college, Jesse meets and falls in love with a 19 year-old student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). As their relationship blossoms, he begins to question their age gap and whether or not he should continue to see her.
There have been many romantic comedies throughout the history of film that tackled a similar premise, so it's safe to say that Liberal Arts does follow a standard romcom formula. What separates it from your average, run-of-the-mill comedy is how it follows that formula with its heart and brain still intact. Most romcoms nowadays tend to cater to the lowest common denominator. Writer/director Josh Radner should be commended for treating his audience with respect both emotionally as well as intellectually. On the one hand, the romance between Jesse and Zibby is full of sweetness, especially given what they write to each other by corresponding the old fashioned way: through hand-written letters. She seems well beyond her years, so it makes sense within the film's internal logic as to why they connect so well as two human beings. Her taste in classical musical also reflects her high level of maturity. You'll find yourself laughing quite often at the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and quips. On the other hand, Radnor delves into some dark territory and perceptive yet harsh truths to offset the sweetness. That darkness comes in the form of a lonely, depressed, cynical professor (Allison Janney) and a lonely, suicidal student (John Magaro). Had Radnor not included those dark elements, Liberal Arts would have become too corny and contrived. The bizarre subplot involving a hippie student (Zac Efron) whom he bumps into feels tacked-on and distracts from the dramatic momentum because it feels like it belongs in an entirely different film.
Out of all of the actors, Allison Janney and Elizabeth Olsen shine the brightest. Janney makes the most of her brief scenes and nails her role with panache. The genuinely beautiful Elizabeth Olsen gives a sweet and heartfelt performance. She truly sizzles. Hopefully, after Liberal Arts, casting directors will realize that she's got the acting chops to convincingly play the lead in romances and not just in horror films or thrillers like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House.
Step Up to the Plate
Step Up to the Plate focuses on how French chef Michel Bras, owner of the restaurant Bras, transfers ownership to his son, Sébastien. The dishes that Sébastien prepares look quite scrumptious, aesthetically pleasing and inventive. Just watching him prepare those dishes is somewhat interesting if, that is, you haven't watched too many cooking shows on the Food Network. Don't expect to learn any recipes here, though, or about the intricate cooking methods.
Director Paul Lacoste includes too much cooking/preparation footage and not enough interviews with Michel and Sébastien to get into their heads or to at least flesh out their relationship more intimately. In other words, there's too much show and not enough tell. You'll end up with more questions than answers, unfortunately. When and why did Michel decide to open a restaurant in Japan as well? Did he or Sébastien ever consider opening one in New York? How does Sébastien truly feel about his father's criticisms of his dishes? How has the relationship between Michel and Sébastien actually evolved throughout their lives? Every documentary needs some sort of a coherent narrative structure to add some meat onto its bones, but there's not enough meat to be found here; mostly a lot of potatoes. The scenes of Michel, Sébastien and their family out in nature could have been omitted altogether or at least edited down because they come across as mere filler. One or two shots of the Aubrac region of France would have been enough to show how picturesque it looks.
Documentaries about culinary arts can be concurrently riveting, informative and poignant (Kings of Pastry and Jiro Dreams of Sushi), but sometimes they're just mildly engaging as is the case with Step Up to the Plate. Ultimately, it leaves you hungry for more emotional and intellectual depth.
The Trouble with the Truth
Robert (John Shea) and Emily (Lea Thompson) were married for 14 years before getting divorced. After his daughter, Jenny (Danielle Harris), informs him that she's engaged, he decides to call up his ex-wife to have a reunion dinner with her. Emily works as a novelist and is married to a wealthy man who calls her cellphone during the dinner, but she chooses to not answer his call. Robert works as musician and has remained unmarried since their divorce. They begin talking at the bar and, soon enough, sit across from each other at a table where they catch up on old times.
The Trouble with the Truth sounds like it could easily be play because it takes place in essentially one location and Robert and Emily converse a lot with one another. More often than not, you feel as though you're eavesdropping on their lengthy, intimate conversations. What's quite refreshing about this romantic drama, though, is that both of them are wise, witty, charismatic and, like all human beings, flawed. It's refreshing to find a modern American film with nuance and two characters actually having interesting conversations. The more you listen to them discussing their regrets and reminisce about old times, the more you're curious to know more about them. They certainly talk a lot, but they actually say a lot, too.
Writer/director Jim Helphill has an very good ear for dialogue because all of it sounds natural and believable without veering into stiltedness. He also infuses wit, subtlety and ephemeral moments of comedy into the film. Moreover, the evolving dynamics between Robert and Emily throughout the course of the night will keep you in suspense while concurrently tugging at your heartstrings ever so slightly. How he manages to generate such palpable chemistry between the two of them is a testament to the sensitively written, sophisticated screenplay as well as the talents of casting directors Dean E. Fronk and Donald Paul Pemrick who were smart and savvy enough to bring John Shea and Lea Thompson on board.
Both actors embody their characters with a plethora of heart and soul. Neither of them gives an over-the-top performance or wooden, and each has his/her own moments to shine. Lea Thompson looks radiant and sexy while her eyes glisten with warmth and tenderness. The same can be said for John Shea. From start to finish, you can sense that both actors have had a lot of experience in acting and in relationships for that matter. They should be commended for choosing roles that are so meaty, nuanced, honest and real--qualities that are usually found in European cinema.