Danish director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners," "Wilber Wants to Kill Himself") follows that cue throughout, unfurling "An Education" with effortless charm and strong performances buoyed by the witty screenplay of English novelist, Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"). What's most impressive about his script, however, is how nearly it adheres to coming-of-age drama convention, and how nimbly it jukes each potential cliche. "An Education" offers a smart, savvy, and admirably unpretentious spin on the May-December relationship film.
A triumph in partnership of pen and performance, Hornby has a way of writing characters that leap off the page, and Scherfig couldn't have asked for a better cast. Jenny (Mulligan) is rebellious, but her insubordination is backed by a genuine intelligence that makes her endearing rather than grating to watch, even when she's heading down the wrong path with her swanky suitor, David (Sarsgaard). Much has been made of Mulligan's stellar performance, but Sarsgaard deserves equal credit for humanizing his slippery character. Even when every red flag is raised, like Jenny, we want to believe David is a decent guy. His suave demeanor and honest eyes easily win us over.
He and his partner Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's significant other, Helen (Rosamund Pike) whisk Jenny into a world of permanent vacation, a cocktail of high-class restaurants, concerts, hotels, and nightclubs. Cooper plays a stoic sidekick and Pike is hysterical as a perfect dolt. She has a wispy vacuity that makes her a mirror antithesis to Jenny and a reliable laugh for the audience. The ensemble is rounded out by Cara Seymour as Jenny's mother, and Alfred Molina, who breathes sardonic life into her consternated father. Olivia Williams also memorably stars as Jenny's proctor and mentor.
The characters and the writing only take the film to a discernable point, however, after which "An Education" grapples to recover from self-seriousness. The light, affable tone that makes the first three quarters of the film so memorable is all but forgotten when Jenny discovers the almost insultingly poorly concealed evidence of David's other life at the onset of the third act. Hornby spends so much time building up his characters as smart, believable people that the simplicity of David's mistake rings immediately false. Come on, the glove compartment that you've seen your girlfriend take cigarettes from isn't the place to keep relationship ruining secrets. Just sayin'. From there, Jenny's life spirals predictably down the toilet and though the drama works, the film never recovers its critical sense of humor.
So though "An Education" takes a major dive near its end in terms of comedy, the film on the whole works throughout, and Nick Hornby substitutes enough offbeat humor to more than compensate for the atonal ending, and still never succumbs to the stifling melodrama the genre is so often tainted by. I'll be surprised if the film doesn't pick up a best picture nomination next month, and while it would probably find a retroactive home somewhere in my 2009 top ten list, I think it falls just a hair shy of greatness. Nevertheless, it's a film with heart and a rare joviality that makes it a standout among its peers. Ignore the poster and enjoy.