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September 03, 2012

Liberal Arts


Liberal ArtsThe Pitfalls of Academia
Josh Radnor Shows You Can’t Go Back
By Cole Smithey

Writer-director-actor Josh Radnor follows up his debut feature (“Happythankyoumoreplease”) with a compact romantic comedy that almost works, but not quite. Radnor does his best John Krasinski impersonation as Jesse, a 36-year-old example of stunted adulthood — by way of a liberal arts education that has kept him in the hallowed halls of academia. Coming off a break-up with his girlfriend, Jesse muddles through his days working as a college admissions councilor in Manhattan.

Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse’s “second-favorite” teacher at his alma mater — Ohio’s Kenyon College — extends an invitation for Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner. Hoberg has picked his own expiration date, but is not completely sold on his own idea to leave behind his comfy existence as a tenured professor.

Jesse’s visit to his collegiate stamping grounds introduces him to 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a cute liberal arts major with a daddy complex. Olsen’s estrogen–simmering performance dominates the movie. That’s a good thing. Elizabeth, the younger sister to the famously overrated “Olsen Twins” continues to prove she received the lion’s share of the family’s talent gene. Her persuasive performances in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Silent House” were no fluke.

Zibby’s sincere appreciation for classical music and literature follows Jesse after his return to New York. Romance multiplies via an old-fashioned exchange of hand-written love letters. Cheesy as it sounds, the narrated dispatches of hyper intellectual and emotional aspiration do a nice job of anchoring the story and shedding intimate light on the characters’ newly rose-tinted world views.

A reunion at Kenyon College puts the age-inappropriate pair on a journey of mutual discovery that involves some humorous criticism of the “Twilight” novels. Jesse is unreasonably prejudiced against the teen vampire books considering that he has never picked one up. Still, he’s up for the challenge of engaging in a little instant book-club interaction with Zibby. Jesse spends an afternoon reading one of the notoriously worst books of all time, only to confirm every one of his suspicions. Needless to say, Zibby takes umbrage at Jesse’s condemnation of the books she loves to read as mindless entertainment. More than a critical thinker, Zibby judges Jesse to be a snob. All of this happens as part of the romantic circling the would-be lovers are doing to decide if they should jump in the sack together. The deliberation engages the audience to figure out which way they hope the action will go. The filmmaker savors a nearly masochistic suspense of passion. Will he or won’t he? — Will she or won’t she?

Zac Ephron stinks up the movie as Nat, an annoying new-age hippie kid who wears one of those dumb knit hats with the ties that hang down on the sides. Written into the script as a ghost-in-the-machine narrative facilitator, Ephron’s rudderless character derails the movie whenever he shows up to drop bombs of idiocy. “Fortune favors those who say yes,” Nat tells Jesse. Meh. Another pet-the-dog ploy comes in the guise of Dean, a hyper-cerebral but a mordantly depressed student who Jesse counsels. The movie would be greatly improved if Radnor had excised these two insultingly superficial subplots.

For its all-too-obvious navel-gazing machinations, the movie plays its adult character cards better. Allison Janney is drop-dead funny as Judith Farichild, Jesse’s beloved literature professor from his days as a student. Janney’s delivery of her character’s withering sarcasm during a post-coital tête-à-tête is the comic highpoint of the movie.

Josh Radnor has his heart in the right place, but can’t help putting his feet on cliché landmines. Flawed though it is, “Liberal Arts” provides a couple of significant lessons about emotional responsibility regarding dating within one’s age-range.

Not Rated. 97 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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