Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is an amateurish assembly of indie standards and faux-intellectual conversations, all of which have been done far better by more capable hands. Reading like an adaptation of the writer/director’s first assignment from Intro to Creative Writing, the film tanks early and often thanks to a surplus of self-indulgences, few of which are remotely funny or touching. Offering little to broaden the already crowded genre of 20/30something males in need of a life boost, it’s a laborious work and one of the more stunted efforts of its kind.
A bland performer, Radnor unfortunately casts himself as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions counselor for an unnamed NYC college. Newly single and floundering in general, when asked to attend the retirement party of his favorite professor, Dr. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he jumps at the opportunity. Returning to his Ohio alma mater, Jesse is invigorated by the undergraduate scene and makes a fast friend in Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the sophomore daughter of Peter’s friends.
Clearly smitten with one another, the two embark on a cringeworthy letter-writing campaign about life and the virtues of classical music, a mix CD of which Zibby has sent with Jesse back to New York. Jesse’s flowery prose is especially awful and imbued with a grandiose sincerity strikingly similar to that of Radnor’s character on “How I Met Your Mother.” Without a trace of irony, the increasingly painful correspondence works its charms and soon Jesse finds himself back in Ohio as Zibby’s lover, 16 years her senior.
The trajectory of their relationship thankfully isn’t as cliché-riddled as the set-up suggests, but each time Liberal Arts verges on saying something fresh, Radnor undermines the progress with a distractingly clumsy dialogue exchange or cultural reference. Over enamored with his knowledge (David Foster Wallace and the Twilight novels each get their due), he’s unwilling or unable to let his characters breathe and explore circumstances that, though familiar, are ripe with appeal.
Under the guise of academic commentary, these pretentious, awkwardly staged conversations about taste and literary merit undo what is otherwise a technically competent work. With New York and picturesque Kenyon College (Radnor’s own alma mater) as backdrops, Liberal Arts is comprised of noticeably crisp shots and held together with smooth editing. The post-production polish, however, is incapable of saving such vapid content, the sum of which amounts to little more than another wannabe-hip descendant of Garden State.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including references, mature thematic material, and some teen drinking.
Liberal Arts is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.
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