×

Liberal Arts

"Liberal Arts" contains the requisite number of audience-pleasing scenes that will make this a hot Sundance bidding item with indie-centric distribs.

With:
Jesse - Josh Radnor
Zibby - Elizabeth Olsen
Peter - Richard Jenkins
Judith - Allison Janney
Dean - John Magaro
Ana - Elizabeth Reaser
Nat - Zac Efron
Susan - Kate Burton
David - Robert Desiderio
Vanessa - Ali Ahn

A movie with a big happy face, “Liberal Arts” sees actor-writer-director Josh Radnor leaning on the sitcom-inflected tendencies that typified his debut, “Happythankyoumoreplease.” Adding an aspect of sylvan academia to the first film’s Gotham setting, Radnor plays a thirtysomething school admissions adviser ready for change, which he finds on a trip back to his alma mater. Containing the requisite number of audience-pleasing scenes that will make this a hot Sundance bidding item with indie-centric distribs, the pic will at least secure Radnor’s next multihyphenate project.

Radnor’s writing is very aware of its audience — how long it’s willing to wait between laughs, how to bolster the comedy with just enough serious incidents and lines, and how to keep things breezy and geared toward a “life is wonderful” conclusion. This makes the film feel perilously close to widescreen sitcom, as do montages of New York set to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Jesse (Radnor) gets a chance to flee the big city when he receives an invite from his favorite professor at Ohio’s Kenyon College, Peter (Richard Jenkins), to attend his retirement dinner. Peter’s friends soon introduce Jesse to their 19-year-old daughter, Elizabeth — nicknamed Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) — who’s attending Kenyon and specializing in improv theater. Jesse is struck by Zibby’s take on improv, in which a performer must always say “yes” to a suggestion.

Through a series of scenes, including Peter’s pathetic retirement party and Jesse’s unlikely encounters with manic-depressive intellectual Dean (John Magaro) and painfully kooky Nat (Zac Efron), a blissful slacker full of aphorisms, “Liberal Arts” draws a slick, simplistic overview of college life, to which Jesse feels nostalgically drawn. He also feels he should be over it, but before he heads back to New York, Zibby sends him off with a CD of her favorite classical music and an agreement to send handwritten letters to each other.

The letters are too self-consciously literary by half, flirting with romance despite their 16-year age difference, but they’re enough to send Jesse back to Kenyon, where he discovers via alluring English prof Judith (Allison Janney), whose Brit romance class wowed Jesse in college, that he has other amorous options. In easily the film’s best scene, he also discovers his former professor’s dark philosophical secret.

A pointless spat between Jesse and Zibby about her love of “Twilight”-type vampire novels makes the pic’s extended midsection feel flabby, and it doesn’t help that Zibby’s character is the pic’s most problematic. The central narrative needs Zibby to feel, look and sound 19, but Olsen, a very mature 22, seems closer to a woman in her mid-20s, which makes it quite a stretch to believe that Zibby is as inexperienced as she claims.

Zibby’s passion for improv is never once seen onscreen, robbing the film of natural comic material, but then again, nothing in this careful entertainment is given over to improvisation or impulse. Janney and Jenkins inject a human, smart sensibility, while Efron is an annoyance, and Magaro tends to be actorish.

The slick production package is led by excessively bright lensing by Seamus Tierney, who even uses strong lights to pretty up nighttime scenes. Classical music cues, including from Monteverdi, are meant to send out intellectual vibes.

Popular on Variety

Liberal Arts

Production: A Strategic Motion Ventures presentation of a BCDF Pictures production in association with Tom Sawyer Entertainment. Produced by Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch, Jesse Hara, Josh Radnor. Executive producers, Peter Graham, Stephen Hays, Paul Prokop. Co-producer, Bryan Thomas. Directed, written by Josh Radnor.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Seamus Tierney; editor, Michael R. Miller; music, Ben Toth; music supervisor, Andy Gowan; production designer, Jade Healy; art director, Scott Kuzio; set decorator, Kuzio; costume designer, Deborah Newhall; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Morgan; supervising sound editor, Henry Auerbach; assistant director, Chad Rosen; casting, Suzanne Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2012. Running time: 97 MIN.

Cast: Jesse - Josh Radnor
Zibby - Elizabeth Olsen
Peter - Richard Jenkins
Judith - Allison Janney
Dean - John Magaro
Ana - Elizabeth Reaser
Nat - Zac Efron
Susan - Kate Burton
David - Robert Desiderio
Vanessa - Ali Ahn

More Scene

  • 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    Why the Television Academy Plans to Donate Furnishings From the 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    The Emmys’ official after party is set to impress — and to leave a permanent impression. At the annual press preview of the 71st Emmys Governors Ball, the Television Academy announced a partnership with Living Spaces, Habitat for Humanity and the Hollywood Community Housing Project that will provide more than 80 custom sofas, chairs and [...]

  • Gaby Hoffmann, Albert Cheng, Alexandra Billings,

    'Transparent' Team Reflects on Series Finale Without Jeffrey Tambor

    Friday night’s premiere of the series finale of “Transparent” at L.A. Live’s Regal theater felt like a family reunion for the Pfefferman clan. Matriarch Judith Light embraced each one of her TV children (Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass) and guest stars from previous seasons (Cherry Jones, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford) who also turned [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Pom Klementieff poses at the launch

    Marvel Cinematic Universe Star Pom Klementieff Talks Disney-Fox Merger, X-Men Dreams

    Pom Klementieff may have entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Mantis in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” followed by appearances in the last two “Avengers” movies, but that wasn’t her original superhero plan. “My dream was to be in X-Men,” she told Variety on Thursday at the Chanel dinner for its new fragrance Gabrielle [...]

  • Gwyneth Paltrow

    Gwyneth Paltrow to Be Honored at amfAR Gala Los Angeles

    Gwyneth Paltrow and art dealer Larry Gagosian are set to be honored at the 2019 amfAR Gala Los Angeles. The American Foundation for AIDS Research announced that the two honorees will receive the Award of Courage for their commitment in the fight against HIV and AIDS as well as for their other humanitarian efforts. Christina [...]

  • David Mandel Sam Richardson

    'The Handmaid's Tale,' 'Veep,' 'When They See Us' Writers Honored at Emmy Nominees Reception

    Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”), David Mandel (“Veep”) and Bruce Miller and Kira Snyder (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) were among those honored at the Television Academy’s Emmy nominees writers reception on Tuesday night in North Hollywood. There, ceremony hosts, “Escape at Dannemora” star Eric Lange and “Veep’s” Sam Richardson, kept the show moving by tossing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content