LIBERAL ARTS – The Review
LIBERAL ARTS is the second film from Josh Radnor who, as in his previous effort HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, wrote, directed, and stars. LIBERAL ARTS has its pleasures and it’s never dull, but It fades from memory quickly, becoming almost indistinguishable from the better films it inevitably reminds me of, and dissolves into the sort of generic sweetness I associate with this type of seriocomic indy film. Radnor plays 35-year old Jesse Fisher, newly single, uninspired by his job as an admissions officer at a New York City college, and worried that his best days are behind him. But no matter how much he buries his head in a book, life keeps pulling Jesse back. When his favorite college professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) invites him to his alma mater to speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the opportunity. He is prepared for the nostalgia of the dining halls and dorm rooms, the parties and poetry seminars; what he doesn’t see coming is Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a beautiful, 19-year old classical-music-loving sophomore. Zibby awakens feelings of possibility and connection that Jesse thought he had buried forever but he worries their age difference is a deal-breaker
Filmed mostly at Radnor’s alma mater Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school located in Gambier, Ohio, LIBERAL ARTS creates an easygoing atmosphere as a character-study of a young man at a crossroads in his life. Radnor’s episodic script shows enough flashes of offbeat insight to compensate for his reliance on desperately zany quirks, and his direction is solid. It’s watchable enough but unfortunately, LIBERAL ARTS, with its throw-away story and dreary central character, fails to stay with the viewer for an extended period of time. Despite having assembled an excellent cast, Radnor doesn’t elicit any standout performances. Richard Jenkins is probably the strongest, but he is aided by the script, which doesn’t give his character any cute eccentricities and doesn’t expect him to participate in any of the comedy. Jenkins, and Alison Janney as a horny lit prof, are so good that they cause Radnor to blend into the background of his film. Radnor is an actor I’d never seen – he’s from TV and I found him lacking big screen charsima. Admittedly, it can be difficult to connect with a character so mopey, but Radnor clearly wants us to like Jessie and we don’t (or at least I didn’t). Given that Radnor’ engaging costar is Elizabeth Olsen, one would expect more chemistry between these two but Radnor’s hangdog expression drags Olson down. They talk a lot about books and feelings, and more books and he insults her tastes because she likes the Twilight novels and you soon wonder why she just doesn’t find someone who’s more fun. The central conflict seems to be that Jessie is too old for Zibby, but they don’t seem that physically mismatched agewise. “Age is just a number” she says and if anything, she seems too womanly for him (and him for her). A cloying letter-writing montage that goes on forever fails to explain why a sharp babe like her would fall for a dweeb like him in the first place and little about their relationship feels real. In one scene Zibby offers up her virginity but he stammers and stutters and acts like a big idiot. Subplots involving a student who’s actually more morose than Jessie (John Magaro) and an annoying hippy (Zac Efron – who I didn’t recognize) go nowhere. I will give credit to Radnor, who, by writing, directing, and starring, has accomplished a huge task. If the film falls down in places, that’s an understandable problem from a second time filmmaker who elected to wear three hats. There’s enough promise in LIBERAL ARTS to hint at better things to come, so as long as you go into it with reasonable expectations, you may not be too disappointed. Maybe you’ll like it.
2 1/2 of 5 Stars
LIBERAL ARTS opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater