Film Review: Liberal ArtsFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 10 Sep 2012

Liberal Arts is the second rom-com from How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor, here acting, writing, directing and producing too. And it’s a more cultured effort than debut Happythankyoumoreplease, even if he proves he’s not the finished article as a filmmaker just yet.

Invited back to his college for a leaving dinner in honour of his favourite lecturer (Jenkins), thirty-something Jesse (Radnor) easily falls back into his old shoes. Only when he falls for freshman Zibby (Olsen), over ten years his junior, he can’t decide if the age difference and her recently revealed sexual inexperience are too much disparity despite their strong feelings for each other.

Set out on a small campus, filled with greenery and open spaces, it’s refreshing to watch a rom-com that isn’t filmed in the big city. And it’s the setting that brings out much of Liberal Arts’ good points. Shot at Kenyon College, Radnor’s very own alma mater, the honesty in his writing and personal nature of the story shines through.

Liberal Arts feels like a coming-of-age story, only it’s Jesse coming out the other side of middle age rather than finding himself as a teen. Whatever, Radnor fits the role perfectly, writing for himself and portraying the lead as a little lost after a recent break-up and bored of the monotony of working school admissions.

Jesse and Zibby’s relationship embodies the film as a whole. Boasting all the earmarks of a clichéd indie pairing – two people who find love in unusual circumstances, bonding over mixtapes and hand-written letters – but it never feels over the top.

Radnor is improving as a writer, director and in his big screen presence, but this doesn’t have the instant likability of Happythankyoumoreplease. It’s a more mature, thoughtful effort, and sits very nicely against every carbon copy rom-com that comes out of Hollywood, although something is still missing. Liberal Arts lacks real style or flair as in the end the sentimentality dilutes what could have been a punchier narrative. It’s sweet and gentle throughout, even when it needs to force just a little bit of edge on the audience.

The ensemble cast though are fantastic with the sort of cultured performances we’ve come to expect from Richard Jenkins and Alison Janney. Zac Efron is a real surprise in his bit part as hippy Nat; his charisma shines through and saves what could have been a horribly clichéd and unfunny character. Elizabeth Olsen is equally memorable too, and continues her winning streak. She’s charming, delightful and effortlessly endearing, yet she has a raw, innocent sex appeal. With this, Martha and the rest, Hollywood really has stumbled on a magnificent new talent.

There are a couple of great scenes based around the age difference and it’s gently funny throughout; consider this another step on Josh Radnor’s ascendancy into filmmaking. He s unlikely to give up the TV day job just yet, but he’s sure building a nice little reputation behind the camera, ready for a full time birth in a few years when he has the time.


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