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PARK CITY — Following up his 2010 release Happythankyoumoreplease, Josh Radnor attempts a triple-play with his second feature, writing, directing and starring alongside recently minted indie icon Elizabeth Olsen. A coming-of-middle-age comedy running on somewhat less than a full tank, Liberal Arts possesses enough comedic moments to approach crowd-pleasing status and could see modest arthouse play.
Thirty-five-year-old Jesse (Radnor), a bit of an introverted bookworm, feigns enthusiasm at his job as a college admissions counselor while pining for his salad days as a free-thinking English Lit student at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. So when his former professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to campus to give a speech at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance to revisit his alma mater, especially since a recent breakup has left him in a funk.
Arriving on campus, his vitality and enthusiasm return, particularly after meeting Zibby (Olsen), a sophomore theater student who’s the daughter of Peter’s friends. The two immediately hit it off, despite an amusingly awkward encounter at a college houseparty full of kids nearly half Jesse’s age. When he leaves town at the end of the weekend, Zibby gives him a CD recording of her favorite classical music and asks Jesse to send a handwritten letter in return.
They’re soon absorbed in an enthusiastic exchange of missives, eventually prompting Zibby to invite Jesse back to campus to visit her. They pass the time with long walks and even longer conversations about books, academics and life in general. Hugs give way to chaste kisses, but when Zibby asks Jesse to spend the night in her dorm room, shyly disclosing her sexual inexperience, he takes a huge step back to reevaluate their relationship. Already feeling uncertain about their 16-year age difference, he’s determined not to get any deeper into a relationship that could veer into very awkward territory.
Radnor directs with confidence and although the film lacks distinctive stylistic flourishes, it’s populated with entertaining characters, including Jenkins as the reluctant retiree, Allison Janney playing Jesse’s cynical and amorous former lit professor, and Zac Efron as a shamanistic campus hanger-on. Olsen is in more conventional territory here than in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but in a far less compelling role. While always charming, she seems much too sophisticated to convincingly play a smart but virginal college student. In the lead, Radnor comes across as alternately too naive or else annoyingly smug.
The script contains some genuinely comedic scenes that play strongly, but overall Radnor’s tendency toward talkiness and a distinctly sentimental streak tend to deflate the film’s impact. Jesse and Zibby’s exchange of handwritten letters rhapsodizing about classical composers and the virtues of both city and rural life is altogether too corny, and Jesse’s friendship with a smart, depressive college student seems needlessly contrived.
Radnor’s nostalgia for college does come across as genuine, which only serves to reinforce the impression that his character should be moving on with life, preferably in a less conventional manner. The film’s denouement offers clichés rather than revelations, however, which some audiences are bound to find more comforting than an open-ended conclusion.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser
Director/screenwriter: Josh Radnor
Producers: Jesse Hara, Josh Radnor, Claude Dal Farra, Brice Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch
Executive producer: Paul Prokop
Director of photography: Seamus Tierney
Production designer: Jade Healy
Music: Ben Toth
Editor: Michael R. Miller
No rating, 95 minutes
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