The Sundance Review Revue: LIBERAL ARTS
The cast of LIBERAL ARTS is like the independent film version of a rock and roll supergroup. You’ve got your road-tested veterans, Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney, and two of the hottest talents to come out of Sundance in recent years: Elizabeth Olsen from MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and writer/director/star Josh Radnor, whose HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE won the Sundance audience award back in 2010. And, yeah, Zac Efron’s in there too. Admittedly, he sabotages the theory just wee bit.
For the most part, the reviews indicate LIBERAL ARTS is a product worthy of the talents that produced it. The film, acquired by IFC Films for U.S. distribution, follows Radnor’s character, a thirtysomething admissions counselor, as he returns to his alma mater for the retirement of his favorite English professor (Jenkins), where he meets and falls for Zibby, a 19-year-old lit student (Olsen). The not-quite-May-December romance (May-August? May-Late July?) received numerous standing ovations from Park City audiences and numerous glowing reviews from Park City film critics. The most glowing came from Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman, who called Radnor a “rare thing: a writer-director who thinks like an actor but still knows how to create a comedy with shape and vision. LIBERAL ARTS is the best movie about college I’ve seen since I don’t know what.” THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Owen. The title you’re trying to think of is THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Gleiberman also liked Zac Efron; “hilarious” as a “mystic-hippie stoner.” I take it all back Zac! (No I don’t.)
Germain Lussier from /Film loved the film as well. Comparing Radnor to a “mini-Cameron Crowe,” Lussier admired the way he combined “joy, life lessons, and a love of culture into a perfect, crowd-pleasing film” (‘mini’? I guess he’s short too.). Lussier saw parallels between Crowe’s use of pop music and Radnor’s use of literature. “Reading is of the utmost importance in LIBERAL ARTS,” he wrote, “and the characters almost universally find that books say things better than they do. Of course, all the connections come from Radnor’s screenplay so he’s the true maestro.”
Though reviews for LIBERAL ARTS were just about uniformly positive, they weren’t all uniformly perfect. Justin Lowe from The Hollywood Reporter said he thought the film ” possesses enough comedic moments to approach crowd-pleasing status and could see modest arthouse play,” but also warned that he found it to be “a coming-of-middle-age comedy running on somewhat less than a full tank.” Lowe praised Radnor’s writing and direction but also cautioned that he tended “toward talkiness and a distinctly sentimental streak [that] tend to deflate the film’s impact.” Similarly, The Playlist‘s Cory Everett rated LIBERAL ARTS a B-: he thought of it as an “enjoyable diversion” but a “simplistic” one.
But that’s how it often goes for supergroups, right? They usually put out a good album, with one really killer single (say Olsen’s charismatic performance, which critics hailed as charming and totally different from MARTHA), but it never quite rates with the best of their best solo projects. Let’s handle these Twitter reviews with care.
“My review of Josh Radnor’s LIBERAL ARTS: I liked it. #sundance” — Mike Ryan, Moviefone
“Josh Radnor’s LIBERAL ARTS was fantastic.. funny and clever and insightful and one of the best I’ve seen at this year’s #sundance so far” — The Weekend Warrior
“LIBERAL ARTS surprisingly touching, relatable college story. Josh Radnor gets a standing ovation in Eccles.#Sundance” — Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
“LIBERAL ARTS is an episodic but heartfelt film abt feeling adult. Radnor def has a gooey center but I’m starting to root for him. #Sundance” — Ryland Aldrich, Twitch
“Think I was more than generous to give Josh Radnor a second chance. Despite a couple good scenes, LIBERAL ARTS is painful. #Sundance” — Geoff Berkshire, Metromix.com
To find more Sundance screenings of LIBERAL ARTS, go to Sundance.org.