To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the script by Josh Radnor for Liberal Arts, one where he is the protagonist, produces, as well as directs. I used to be leery of films by someone who writes the script, acts, as well as other aspects of the production. I have changed my mind set this year after I have discovered several films where the writer also performs the lead or prominent character and the end product actually has a great result. Radnor’s sophomore feature, following 2010’s award-winning HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE is now on my list of those I am impressed with this year, plus I look forward to what is next from this filmmaker.
I am not only pleased with Radnor’s work, but the excellent choices for the elder and younger actor’s he surrounded himself with to play the characters he created in his story. Radnor is Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old university admissions counselor in New York City who returns to a retirement party for his mentor, the aging literature Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Jesse meets the professor’s friends, including their daughter, 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who attends school at his Ohio alma mater. While there for the weekend, he also meets Nat (Zac Efron) mystically aware of his surroundings on campus and a depressed student, Dean (John Magaro), who also is into the same novel that Jesse is.
Featured among the rich assortment of characters includes Jesse’s feisty college Romantics Professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), who I found to be a scene stealer at times in Liberal Arts, aside from the ever talented Jenkins in whatever character he performs. The Romantics literature course is one Jesse constantly declares is his favorite and in reality, this course at Kenyon College in Ohio — Radnor’s alma mater — had an influence on his to eventually evolve into became this film, the first feature film to shoot there.
There is more depth to the script than an older man falling for a college student that is 16 years younger. The scene where Jesse is doing the math is very funny as he is dealing with the reality of his emotions and consequences. Back in New York is Ana (Elizabeth Reaser) who works at Jesse’s favorite book store, but who he seems to miss while keeping his nose glued to the favorite story he is reading. Jesse has a good dose of advice for Dean that he later learns to use for himself as he makes decisions between urban New York and rural Ohio.
The viewer can receive a dose of romance, some drama and humor in the film that I found to be balanced and entertaining. The great performances from the whole cast of diverse ages cannot be stressed enough and they really work. The film screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and Dallas International Film Festival among others and now Austin audiences will enjoy it as it opens September 28th in local theaters.
By Liz Lopez