General admissions – Liberal Arts review (Sydney Film Festival)

Liberal Arts – Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Josh Radnor.  By Richard Haridy.

Liberal Arts plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 15, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

In Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor (Ted from How I Met Your Mother) continues to go the Woody Allen route with his second feature as writer-director-actor. His first film, Happythankyoumorepleasewas a sweet, low-key effort that, while not especially inspired, was hard to hate. Liberal Arts is in much the same vein despite Radnor clearly striving for larger significance here.

Radnor stars as Jesse, a New York-based, 35-year-old college admissions advisor who returns to his old university in Ohio to celebrate the retirement of his favorite teacher, Professor Hoberg (the always sensational Richard Jenkins). Through some mutual friends Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old drama major, and a connection is made. In one of the most humorously prescient sequences we see Jesse struggle to rationalise the age difference between himself and Zibby. Realising that when he was 19 she was only three, he decides to concentrate more on the fact that when he will be 86 she will be 71; a seemingly more reasonable age separation.

As Jesse pursues a relationship with the innocent and apparently sexually naïve Zibby, several other plotlines circle his; Professor Hoberg struggles with an impending retirement, and the psychologically unstable student Dean (John Magaro) comes into the picture. It’s clear Radnor is ambitiously trying to deal with some real issues here and the mid-thirties crisis seems to be popular in movies right now (The Future, Away We Go). What holds Liberal Arts back from greatness is the frustrating way it resorts to conventional, bland conclusions. Radnor’s screenplay is neat in ways that were a little too clever for me with every peripheral character ultimately acting as a conduit for Jesse’s own personal growth rather than appearing a rounded person in their own right.

Zac Efron pops up several times as an odd sage-like stoner while Allison Janney rounds out a solid supporting cast with her wonderful, surly, Romantic-literature professor. The feel-good nature of the resolution should please most viewers but it lacks the depth and insight of a truly great film. Liberal Arts is pleasant, amiable, and a little more thoughtful than your average rom-com but still a resolutely vanilla-flavored concoction.

3/5

Liberal Arts plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 15, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

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