Sundance 2012: 'Liberal Arts' is Smartly Funny, Not Exactly Profound
by Ethan Anderton
January 24, 2012
Last year "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor made his directorial debut with the fluffy, feel-good film HappyThankYouMorePlease, and while it pleased the audience, it wasn't exactly a home run with the critics. This time around, Radnor brings the same charm with Liberal Arts, but in a more mature package complete with witty writing and a perfect presentation of the struggles one endures in college as they begin to become an adult and also in their later years as they desperately try to hold on to their younger days. However, the film isn't completely a winner as it snobbishly attempts to be wiser than the audience.
In Liberal Arts, Jesse Fisher (Radnor) gets invited back to his alma mater as one of his favorite professors (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to celebrate his retirement. In his visit, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) the 19-year old daughter of one of his professor's family friends and there's a bit of a spark between the two learned scholars despite their 16-year difference between them. This is the start of exactly the kind of film you would expect from Sundance as each of these characters have something to teach and learn from the other, especially about life and the pursuit of happiness.
There's some clever references to literature, pop culture and even a great use of a technique in improvisation (yes and...) that can easily be applied to life, however, the drawn out conversations that happen between Jesse, Zibby, and various other characters come off as fortune cookie wisdom in a trite package, sometimes seeming a little bit smug. The conversations are undoubtedly well-written and very entertaining, but I was unable to see anything profound in most of the dialogue as it merely seems to be a transcription of the conversations most college students have in their 20's. Normally this would be a much bigger flaw against the film, but it's Radnor's lighthearted style that helps in this case, not to mention his charisma and Olsen's increasingly impressive acting talents.
The real treasure within Liberal Arts is an all to brief supporting turn by Zac Efron as this sort of free-loving, care-free, twenty-something who ends up steering Fisher in the right direction. Radnor brings this certain kind of energy to the film that seems to infect his entire cast which results in a truly entertaining film, despite it having a somewhat pedestrian approach to life in a cute little box. Liberal Arts is surely a crowd favorite at Sundance and will please many a film-goer. For those who enjoyed Radnor's first effort, this is leaps and bounds better in writing and direction while still retaining what made his Audience Award Winning film from Sundance 2010 such a beloved festival film.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 7.5 out of 10