Review: Liberal Arts (Sundance 2012)
PLOT: Jesse (Josh Radnor) is a thirty-five year old university admissions officer in New York, whose life hasn't actually turned out the way he planned. Having just been left by his girlfriend, Jesse escapes from his problems by returning to his Ohio college, where a beloved former professor (Richard Jenkins) is about to retire. When there, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) a vivacious nineteen-year-old, with whom he shares some undeniable chemistry. Despite the age difference, the two become fast friends and confidants- but could something more be in the cards for these two?
REVIEW: Chalk this one up as a Sundance entry that completely took me by surprise. Director/writer/star Josh Radnor (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) is no stranger to the fest, after his directorial debut, HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE played in competition a few years ago. While it took home the audience prize, I wasn't a fan.
However, his follow-up, LIBERAL ARTS is a huge leap from his first film. The self-conscious, wannabe quirkiness, and faux-hipster indie mentality that's become such a cliche over the last few years is virtually absent here. Rather, LIBERAL ARTS is an unabashedly sentimental coming of age story.
While the idea of a romance between a nineteen-year-old and a thirty-five-year-old might strike some as being a little hard to swallow, the chemistry between the wise-beyond-her-years Olson and the boyish Radnor makes it a bit easier to digest. Even still, Radnor doesn't go the route you might think he'd take with the storyline. He's all-too-aware that the age gap tests the bounds of propriety, and it's not treated lightly. It's actually a pretty big question whether or not Radnor's character will actually take the leap, and allow himself to fall into a romance with her character, and both the for and against arguments are given equal weight.
Richard Jenkins, playing his soon-to-be-retired professor with issues of his own, is the voice of reason, who, in one scene that's bound to speak to a lot of people who feel they never outgrew college, tells Radnor that “you may feel nineteen, but you're not.” At the other end of he spectrum, we have Zac Efron (!) as a hippy stalking the campus, who takes a liking to Radnor and urges him to do what makes him happy (he's actually really funny in his small part).
I hesitate to call LIBERAL ARTS a romance though, as the relationship between Radnor and Olsen is more about friendship than anything else. In that way, it's a bit like LOST IN TRANSLATION, with the older Radnor taking her to task for reading disposable junk like TWILIGHT and participating in the lowering of society's standards, while she teaches him to embrace idealism through her love of opera. Unlike many films of this type, this is more about an exchange of ideas and emotions that an exchange of fluids if you catch my drift...
Oh, and did I mention LIBERAL ARTS is funny? Well it is, but in a lower-key, Woody Allen kind of way, and there's a certain relaxed, effortless vibe floating over the film that keeps it from ever getting heavy handed in the way HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE did.
LIBERAL ARTS really is a film that delighted me, and it's a highlight of the festival. Considering the wildly enthusiastic response it's gotten from the majority of critics (although I suspect this will be something younger, under 40 critics will be more keen to embrace), and the crowds that gave it standing ovations, I fully expect to see LIBERAL ARTS picking up a big distribution deal rather quickly. One thing's for sure- this thing is going to come out and surprise a lot of people. It's funny that LIBERAL ARTS premiered on the same day Ben Stiller hosted a retrospective screening of REALITY BITES. If that film perfectly en-capsuled Gen-X, this one does the same for the gap between that generation and the one that follows. And who knows, twenty years from now, maybe Radnor will be back at Sundance, doing a retrospective of this. Stranger things have happened.