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MOVIE REVIEW: Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts may be an independent film but ranks high on the list of films with something to say and a beautiful way to say it, measured by more than just degrees.

Knowledge is Sorrow

RATED: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5 buckets | WORTH:  Matinee or DVD 

Rated: NR

Release Date: September 14, 2012
Runtime:  1 hour 37 minutes

Director: Josh Radnor
Writers: Josh Radnor
Cast:  Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser

SYNOPSIS:  When 30-something Jesse returns to his alma mater for a professor's retirement party, he falls for Zibby, a college student, and is faced with a powerful attraction that springs up between them.

REVIEW: Josh Radnor, star of the CBS hit comedy How I Met Your Mother, is becoming a renaissance man with forays into writing and director feature films. In 2010, Radnor surprised at the Sundance Film Festival with HappyThankyouMorePlease where he won the Audience Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. When he finishedLiberal Arts and presented it at the festival, the film was snatched up for distribution. Does triple threat writer/director/actor John Radnor serve up another hit? Let's take a look.Thirty-something college graduate Jesse (Josh Radnor, HappyThankYouMorePlease) works at the admissions office of a New York college, an avid reader of literature and graduate of an Ohio college with a liberal arts degree. When Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins,The Cabins in the Woods) looks to retire at Jesse's alma mater, Jesse returns to his own campus and finds himself transcending to an earlier, more knowledge-hungry, care-free time of his life. While on campus, Jesse meets 19-year-old old soul Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House) who captures his imagination. When Jesse returns to New York, he and Zibby stay connected through hand-written letters and a burned CD of classical music that Zibby found awakened a new awareness in her during her Music Survey course. Jesse and Lizzy realize that there was a strong attraction to each other and try to figure out what to do about it.

Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge ... For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Ecclesiastes 1:18

Josh Radnor would be the first to tell you that he was working through something when he wrote the script for Liberal Arts. Looking to learn a lesson about the prospects of aging and of one's mortality, Radnor creates a story that is fueled from personal experience and personal growth. An alum of Kenyan College in real life, Radnor did take a real trip to his alma mater and realized that he had matured to a point where interactions with the younger generation still attending college would seem suspect.

Liberal Arts is a romantic dramedy in the best sense of the genre, the script following the trials and tribulations of Jesse by using several perspectives and opinions to light the way. Jesse interacts with the 'end of the road' Professor Peter Hoberg who wants to escape the prison that a few decades of working at the college has made it for him. During his wanderings through the campus, Jesse also encounters a young student Dean (John Magaro, The Box) who is both emotionally distant and a kindred spirit who enjoys the same book that shaped his own younger mind. Jesse can relate to both his own youth in the form of Dean, as well as his mounting fears that his second favorite college professor confides to him concerning his impending retirement.

Smartly written with poignant prose and dialogue, Radnor has mastered translating the written words into compelling dialogue. A perfect example of Radnor's craft coming to life can be encapsulated in a cafe bench debate between Jesse and Zibby over the pros and cons of 'Solar Sun, Lunar Moon', a campy vampire romance novel, and its place in literature. Is literature relegated to prose that compels and enriches, or is it something that you can enjoy just as fun? The conundrum that Jesse poses about literature in its totality is that 'literature is created to combat loneliness', but the more you read the less you exist in the real world.

Centered around the struggle of the yearnings of the idealized past, the drifting wayward existence of the the present, and the fears of an unknown future, Josh Radnor's story is made all the better with stellar performances by Radnor, the stunning and enthralling Elizabeth Olsen, and Richard Jenkins. Add in characters like a Romantic Literature Professor Judith Fairfield played with grace and diction by Allison Janney (The Help), a young spiritual guru Nat played without irony by Zac Efron (The Lucky One), young troubled student Dean played by John Magaro, and a wistful book store employee Ana played by Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1) - plus the Ohio college campus as an Autumn oasis of enlightenment and higher learning - and you have a refreshing, intelligent film worth viewing.

Liberal Arts may be an independent film, but ranks high on the list of films with something to say and a beautiful way to say it. From the new perspectives found through a pair of headphones and a burned CD, to the lost art of hand-written letters, to the influences of the written word on the expectations of real life, Liberal Arts is measured by more than degrees. 

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