Movie Review: Liberal Arts
Director: Josh Radnor
Reviewed: 28 January 2013
As a Kenyon man but more importantly as a lover of cinema, I found Josh Radnor's "Liberal Arts" to be disappointing on nearly every level. Besides being excited to see Kenyon College's campus shot in glorious sunshine, helicopter shots flying over Peirce Hall, and the incongruous sight of Zac Efron on Middle Path (as well as the Bookstore, Peter Rutkoff, and the Wiggin Street School), Radnor's script is too long and its heart in a very strange place.
Radnor is Jesse Fisher, a NYC admissions officer at lost in the big city and in life. When his favorite Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) calls him back to his small college in mid-Ohio for a retirement dinner, Jesse returns and meets cute with sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the vaguely unsatisfied comedy troupe performing Hannah Hall-dwelling manic pixie dream girl dissatisfied with Kenyon men and intrigued by Jesse for some reason. They strike up a friendship, fueled by mix CD's and letters. Voice-over ensues as both read their letters and form a relationship from afar, each idealizing each other.
What frustrated me most about this film was Jesse's incompleteness as a character. So little is given of his life in NYC that it is hard to view him as anything other than a set of attributes and behaviors. It's not even clear where his romanticism of college comes from. The film abandons its mentor character of Richard Jenkins, substituting a subplot involving Allison Janney as Professor Judith Fairfield, a frightening Romantics professor. I disliked the overloading of the plot with too many strands; it really cannot carry all of them well. There are moments that seem just designed to denigrate the "Twilight" series as well as inane conversations that just ring false. Radnor's skills behind the camera are fine.
The film fails to end when it should, and by dragging out the plot, Radnor weakens the film. Jenkins gets all the film's best lines, ("Any place that you don't leave is a prison") and he is too fine of an actor to waste in this film.
In closing, I wonder if I am too harsh on this film. I love my memories of college, the closeness of professors and students, and that time in a person's life is truly extraordinary for so many reasons. I fault Radnor for simply not telling a story worthy of its location and time period. It's simply not that interesting and that stems from Jesse and Zibby both lacking depth and truth as characters. I wanted to see the movie about Professor Hoberg's leaving of a place that he loved.
I was truly unprepared to dislike this film as much as I did.