Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 02 May 2012
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2012 Independent Film Festival Boston
Josh Radnor, star of the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, acts as writer, director, and star of Liberal Arts, a follow-up to his 2010 debut Happythankyoumoreplease. In the film Radnor plays Jesse, a college admissions counselor and obsessive bookworm who returns to his alma mater for a retirement party in honor of one of his favorite undergraduate professors, Peter Hoberg. It’s almost immediately clear that Jesse, who is in his mid-thirties, is deeply nostalgic for his time in school: upon arriving at his grassy, idyllic former campus from his home in New York City, he lies on the verdant ground and grins. (Though it’s never named, the movie was shot at Radnor’s own former school, Kenyon College.)
Jesse’s nostalgia at least partially spurs the rapid development of his relationship with Zibby, the whimsically named nineteen-year-old college sophomore that he meets when lunching near campus with some of Peter’s friends, and soon Jesse finds himself (almost) romantically involved with a girl sixteen years his junior. The set-up and cast of characters is somewhat familiar, and as soon as Zibby arrives, wasting no time in expounding on how she sees her improv troupe as a metaphor for life, Liberal Arts begins to run the risk of sinking into indie comedy cliché, including the now oft-cited and much-derided Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost everyone in the movie talks altogether too much. The characters open their hearts too quickly, pushing the bounds of credibility and causing some revelations to feel unearned. This is the kind of movie where characters form important bonds after sharing brief conversations about Post-It note laden copies of Infinite Jest; where the protagonist complains that college was the only place where he got to consistently have serious conversations about big ideas. (Why Jesse didn’t just enter a liberal arts graduate program of some kind, I’ll never know.) Heck, we even get Zac Efron (in a role that might have gone to Jack Black ten or fifteen years ago) appearing periodically in a woolly cap, alternately extolling the virtues of college parties and spouting stuff about caterpillars turning into butterflies.
It may not be a shock that Liberal Arts doesn’t steer completely clear of cliché. (The older guy does grow up as a result of his relationship with the younger girl, and he goes as far as to acknowledge the irony of the same.) Thankfully, however, there are some good laughs waiting for those willing to grant the film its indie excesses, and the performances go a long way toward redeeming the proceedings. Radnor is sympathetic as Jesse, and Elizabeth Olsen, wide-eyed and fresh-faced though she may be, manages to keep Zibby from becoming cloying. And there’s great work happening in the supporting roles: John Magaro brings soul to Dean, a brilliant-but-hurting lit major who crosses Jesse’s path, and Allison Janney is a scream as Judith Fairfield, Jesse’s coolhearted former Romantics professor.
Richard Jenkins, meanwhile, is almost too good as Peter, the retiring professor daunted by the question of what comes next. Jenkins has some really wrenching scenes, including a brutal one where he attempts to renege on his resignation from teaching. By the picture’s close, Peter still feels like something of a loose end—he seems to be part of a quiet, compelling tragedy that was somehow dropped, in fragments, into a lighthearted, belated-coming-of-age comedy.
Indeed, one can’t help but imagine a tougher version of Liberal Arts where Zibby and Jesse never show up, and the movie’s most troubled characters take center stage. Though Radnor’s real Liberal Arts is entertaining, it also invites the word “cute,” and at times there’s a sense that had its focus been different, it could have been a more biting, and perhaps more interesting, film.
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