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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wistful And Romantic: A Genial Crowd Pleaser Bolstered By A Great Elizabeth Olsen Performance, December 14, 2012
This review is from: Liberal Arts [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
It's fair to say that I wasn't a huge fan of Josh Radnor's first film as a writer/director "Happythankyoumoreplease." While the movie had promise and some strong points, it veered a little too far into preciousness and quirk for my taste. I might have been in the minority, though, as the film scored an Audience Award at Sundance. But for me, many of its plot digressions seemed a little too contrived to be taken seriously. In his second effort, "Liberal Arts," I find myself having a similar reaction. Overall, though, the movie works much more cohesively. It strikes some irresistibly bittersweet moments and features some winning performances. But every time Radnor scores with a heartfelt, affectionate, or funny scene, he counters with something too convenient or unbelievable to follow it up. Simply put, "Liberal Arts" is a good movie (sometimes very good) that struggles to find a consistent tone. Radnor has talent as both a writer and director, sometimes he just needs to rein in the artificiality that comes with excessive quirk.

"Liberal Arts" relies on a middle-aged nostalgia for one's college days. As a central theme, it is one that strikes a real emotional chord and is something that many of us can easily identify with. Radnor plays a New York City resident who is invited to his small town alma mater to honor a favorite professor (Richard Jenkins). The two men share an easy bond and their scenes together have a quiet poignancy and effectiveness. While there, Radnor becomes entangled with a feisty co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) despite their sixteen year age difference. There are some fresh comic moments throughout. I especially liked an uncredited Zac Effron as an ethereal life force that connects rather fancifully with Radnor. But there are also moments of deep sadness. Jenkins struggles with his life choices and Radnor has to face the realities of his relationship with the younger Olsen. What does it mean to finally grow up? That's the position Radnor finds himself confronting.

The movie has some terrific highlights. Jenkins is great. Allison Janney has an amusing, but brief, side plot. But for me, the movie all but belongs to Olsen. She's so likable and, more importantly, so believable. It's hard to imagine not falling in love with her. Breezy and heartfelt in equal measures, she epitomizes every idealistic crush you might have experienced. When she's on screen the movie soars. I might have lived without a couple of peripheral stories like Radnor inexplicably befriending a troubled student. This is one of the developments that seems far more scripted than real. Still, "Liberal Arts" has its heart in the right place. It strikes an appropriately wistful tone and should be an appealing diversion to most. While I wanted to love it (and I did love the central plot of the film), I merely liked it due to some of the extraneous choices. About 3 1/2 stars for me, I'll round up for Olsen who is becoming an increasingly impressive young actress. KGHarris, 12/12.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 30, 2013 11:22:53 PM PDT
BruceK says:
> just needs to rein in the artificiality that comes with excessive quirk.

That's well said ... did you make that up or steal it from somewhere because it seems to explain a lot of almost good movies?

Posted on Apr 17, 2014 12:14:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 17, 2014 12:15:30 PM PDT
Steven Mason says:
"Middle-aged nostalgia"? The character Josh plays, Jesse, is 35, which may have been the younger side of middle-age in the 1950s, but I don't think that's true today. Moreover, Jesse had never "grown up." In a way, you could say that this is Jesse's coming-of-age story - better late than never. Jesse says as much in one of his lines, when he says something like "It took a 19-year-old to help me grow up." To take my point about middle-age a little further, I was under the impression that Jesse had been stuck in nostalgia ever since he left college, so it had less to do with being older than being stuck.

What got him unstuck? A would-be dalliance with a 19-year-old student with whom he had very little in common, regardless of the age difference. In yet another one of Jesse's lines, he said something like "If I were 19 and going to this college now, you (Zibby) would probably not be interested in me." Indeed, probably not. But that just begged the question: Why was she interested in him now? I don't have to wonder why Jesse was interested in Zibby. She is an extremely attractive and affectionate young woman and offered herself to Jesse on a silver platter. Jesse had just broken up with his girlfriend and he had been in a funk for sixteen years. There's nothing like a perky young woman to perk things up. Later on in the film, Zibby offers us a fairly lame clue as to what attracted her to Jesse: She thought he could be some kind of "shortcut" for her. Yes, well, a line like that is a pretty convenient shortcut to writing a better movie script with more plausible and relatable characters.

Olsen's acting was okay, for what she was given. But let's get real: Her main role was to look really cute and be a serious temptation for Jesse. Her character was not developed. She was a stereotype of - as you say - "every idealistic crush." Actually it's worse than that; she went beyond stereotype all the way to male fantasy. Show me a high school or college guy who doesn't fantasize about a beautiful girl who turns down every other boy she's ever met but aggressively offers herself to YOU, and who has personally handpicked YOU to be her first lover. I don't like it when movies spoon feed juvenile male fantasies to me. No, she's going to have to play a more worthy role before I'll give her kudos for her acting chops.

I agree about the oddly placed peripheral story of the troubled student. I think it was simply meant to be one more impetus for Jesse to "grow up," to take Life, relationships, friendships and consequences more seriously. Which reminds me of yet another one of Jesse's lines, something about morality involving the consideration of consequences. Imagine that. Like I said, Jesse is 35, but better late than never. :-)

You especially like Zac Effron's character, after you complained about preciousness, quirk, convenience and unbelievability? Interesting. Don't get me wrong; I thought Effron's character was the best part of this mediocre film, for a couple of laughs.
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