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Liberal Arts | The Clapper Bored

Liberal Arts

I was one of the 16 or so people who saw Josh Radnor’s directorial debut happythankyoumoreplease and whilst it was terrible, it felt like an extended, fairly well written sitcom episode. It showed some promise, apparently enough to greenlight his second, infinitely more accomplished, feature, Liberal Arts. The sitcom vibe has evaporated entirely and what remains is a fairly adult study of arrested development and the continued lure of university education. Once again, Radnor places himself at the centre of the film but this time the effects are much more personal, although he sacrifices any comedy to reach this goal.

The film follows Radnor’s Jessie as he returns to his alma mater and meets Zibby (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who’s a 19-year-old student there. All the expected romantic tensions follow as the older man, who’s having an early mid-life crisis, becomes infatuated with his onomatopoeic Lolita. Radnor and Olsen are an attractive pairing and, crucially, Radnor imbues Zibby with enough realistic immaturity to make sure that this isn’t simply wish fulfilment. Throw into the mix an ageing Richard Jenkins, domineering Allison Janney and a disarmingly wacky Zac Efron and what you have is a pleasant on the eye ensemble drama.

The trouble is that the film really ought not to be a drama at all. Radnor clearly has aspirations to film the Woody Allen gap (indeed, there are specific shots that deliberately evoke the master) but, on this evidence, he’s simply not funny enough. Sometimes it’s chuckle worthy but this feels far to serious and not the film that it ought to be. After all, the biggest ‘problem’ in the film is that a 35-year-old, college educated white male is a college admissions supervisor rather than some great poet. Drama! So the opportunity for comedy slips away and, whilst the film is well intentioned, well made and a good watch, it cannot achieve anything much beyond middle of the road obscurity.

Charming and well acted, the film is only let down by the lack of laughs in its relatively superficial story.

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3.5
Title: Liberal Arts
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring : Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron
Running Time : An hour and a half
Certificate : 12a

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