Reviews written by registered user
|2 reviews in total|
*This review was previously submitted as an assignment in my film
class, which is the reason for its formality and structure.*
"Liberal Arts," written and directed by Josh Radnor, deals with the often-crushing reality of post-college life and the pedestal on which the seemingly idyllic college years are placed. Though the film often runs the risk of becoming an intellectually preachy vanity piece, its genuinely smart writing and relentlessly likable cast elevates it to an honest, enjoyable study of college and its aftermath.
Radnor stars as 35-year-old Jesse, a college recruiter with an unmarketable English/history degree who is nostalgic for his own days at a picturesque Ohio university. When an old professor (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to campus for his retirement dinner, Jesse finds himself drawn to smart, peppy student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), despite his discomfort at the age difference between them. While exploring their latent relationship at his alma mater, Jesse encounters his most influential former professor (Allison Janney), a clinically depressed student (John Magaro), and some realizations about his own aims in life.
Given the subject matter and setting, it's expected that the characters will pride themselves on their intellect and sophistication, and this gives way to some contrived, artsy dialogue, such as a letter montage (never easy to pull off) between Jesse and Zibby in which they wax poetic about classical music, which sounds smart in writing but comes off as unconvincing and pretentious when spoken, accompanied heavy-handedly by poignant New York scenery. However, the witty, laugh-out-loud dialogue usually keeps the film and characters from feeling like they take themselves too seriously, making determinedly highbrow scenes like this clash uncomfortably with the generally self-aware tone.
Radnor writes his character into enough glamorous situations (all the significant female characters sleep with him or try to at some point) and makes him sound over-educated enough that the film could have easily felt like a shameless vanity piece, but he plays Jesse so affably that there's not much room to mind. It's quite believable that his character would attract even young girls, with his naturally youthful looks and self-deprecating charm. Olsen does well with an even more challenging character; Zibby comes dangerously close to the "manic pixie dream girl" archetype of indies, but Olsen plays her with a sweet innocence that never feels fake and, when called on for dramatic moments, she is every bit a real college girl wounded, vulnerable, and ultimately clueless about where she's going in life. Zac Efron flits in and out as a wisdom-dispensing stoner who may or may not be a figment of Jesse's imagination, offering some of the best laughs in the film.
Arguably the best performances, though, are given by Jenkins and Magaro. Jenkins plays the professor every student wants; like the film itself, he doesn't take himself too seriously but is utterly devoted to the school. He delivers some of the best acting in the film when he pleads for his job back mere days after retiring. Magaro is strangely touching as a college student perhaps closer to the norm than the Zibbies of the world: miserable in school, there solely to please his family, and constantly on the brink of a mental breakdown. In his limited screen time, he creates an oddly heart-winning character despite his sullen demeanor.
"Liberal Arts" is an enjoyable, cleverly written film that should strike a note with college students current and former. The witty writing and earnest cast make its few pretentious missteps easy to brush off affectionately.
Though I am LDS, I've grown wary of LDS cinema. The God's Army movies
were outstanding, I enjoyed The Singles Ward, and even Charly was quite
good in my opinion, but I'm constantly on my guard when watching a
Mormon-made movie for cheesy sentiment and shameless propaganda of my
religion. I got this movie at a store closing sale and figured I'd try
it out, but was fully prepared for cheesy dialogue and preachiness. I
was pleasantly surprised.
The movie is about a Mormon girl from Utah named Jenny (Alison Akin Clark) who lives for dance. She goes to New York University to pursue it but is turned down for the first scholarship she auditions for. She vows to work hard and get the scholarship next year. The first fellow Latter-Day Saint that she meets, a film student named Paul (Michael Buster), asks to make a documentary chronicling her progress, and they become friends, though Jenny clicks her tongue at his views on dating--"I'm not ready to grow up just yet," he explains, when he tells Jenny that his ambition is to date a girl from every one of the fifty states. Meanwhile, Jenny quickly becomes obsessed with local musician Dave (Jeremy Elliott), who is not LDS but is otherwise her dream man, and they begin dating. Jenny gradually loses interest in pursuing her dream of dancing and toys with the idea of giving everything up for Dave.
While watching this love triangle unfold I rolled my eyes, thinking Jenny would either (A) convert Dave and live happily ever after with him, gently letting Paul down and finding someone else for him, or (B) cheerfully realize she's in love with good little LDS Paul after all. But the movie surprises you. The relationships between Jenny/Paul and Jenny/Dave are both so well developed and lovingly portrayed that soon I realized any possible romantic outcome would be bittersweet and would be unexpected either way, for the movie favors neither relationship explicitly. While beautifully showing the sweet and easy friendship between Jenny and Paul, it also shows absolute empathy and understanding for anyone who has ever fallen in real love with someone outside their faith, and doesn't attempt to simplify or undermine the experience with a dismissive "The LDS person is always better for you, that's that." Instead, we get to consider the emotional complexities involved right along with Jenny, and no deus ex machina of "Dave was just waiting for someone like her to show him the gospel!" comes to the rescue.
For non-LDS viewers (though I suppose there are unlikely to be any), the movie is also refreshingly light on shoving our religion down the audience's throats. Non-LDS characters are positively and respectfully portrayed and the movie never once tries to convert them. One of my favorite scenes took place in Jenny's philosophy class, where the teacher challenges Jenny to prove the existence of God. Though Jenny is flustered at the question and can offer no better argument than what she feels in her heart, her non-member friend offers an assertive and insightful speech for the existence of God. I thought this was very refreshing to not make the LDS character the awe-inspiring one with all the conviction and answers, and this is coming from an LDS viewer, mind you.
All in all, I quite enjoyed this movie and was impressed with its overall emotional maturity. Non-LDS viewers may be unmoved, and so may LDS viewers for that matter, but personally I'd recommend it.