Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: Liberal Arts (2012)


Director: Josh Radnor
Writer: Josh Radnor 
Stars: Josh RadnorElizabeth Olsen and Zac Efron

I was expecting great things going into my screening of Liberal Arts. Josh Radnor's directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, had pleased me quite a bit, and I was hoping he'd make it two from two with this film. I walked out of the cinema even more satisfied than I expected to be. Liberal Arts is a delightful film—perhaps the best film about college I've seen since Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (1995). I say it's about college, which is only half-true. Liberal Arts is mainly about the way people come in and out of our lives. It's also about the contrast between past and present. The film decries the empty pleasure of nostalgia in favour of the ripe opportunities offered by the present. A lot of films about college life focus on teenagers at a crossroads, but in Radnor's film, the adults are the ones in need of direction. This is why the movie works so well.

Looking at the film's poster, you'd assume this is a conventional romance with a splash of comedy. After all, there's that famous line from Hitchcock's Vertigo: "Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere." I will not reveal whether or not these two main characters go somewhere, but I will give you some context. Radnor stars as Jesse Fisher, a 35 year-old college admissions officer who is contacted by one of his former college professors, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Peter is [reluctantly] retiring and would like Jesse to attend his retirement party. Jesse complies, and returns to his alma mater in Ohio. Peter introduces Jesse to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19 year-old improv drama student who is the daughter of his friends. Jesse and Zibby strike up a bond over the arts—in particular literature and classical music. They correspond via handwritten letters once Jesse returns to New York, but Zibby starts to miss having Jesse around, so Jesse returns to Ohio, and must consider how far he takes his relationship with a girl 16 years his junior.  


The first thing you should know about this film is that it is jam-packed with cultural references and reflections on great works of literature and music. If all you read is cereal boxes and the pamphlets that arrive in your mail, you may not enjoy this film. At times, it seems as though Radnor is using the film to spout his own status as an aesthete. That said, this is far from pseudo-intellectualism. Radnor holds a B.A. in Drama as well as a Master of Fine Arts, so he isn't exactly writing beyond his means. There's an old adage: "Write what you know," and Radnor is simply writing what he knows—the arts, and the emotions they stir up in him. Radnor shows great respect for the intellect of his audience. This is proven in a scene where Jesse meets an emotionally unstable student named Dean (John Magaro). Dean is holding David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. We see the book, but the camera doesn't focus on it. We can't see the title and not a single character mentions it. If you know your books, you'll be able to deduce that the book is Infinite Jest based on Jesse's comments about how long it is. It also helps that we can vaguely make out the cover design. Many people will dismiss Radnor as smug and egocentric for casting himself in a role where he gets to be romantic with Elizabeth Olsen (and Allison Janney). These are probably the same people who detest Woody Allen. Well, I say, "Who cares?" If Radnor feels he can inhabit the character better than anyone else, then I say go for it.

There are so many memorable one-liners in the film—not ones that make you laugh, but ones that make you think. Underneath Liberal Arts' breezy exterior lies serious commentary on the predicament of getting older and other existential crises. I think Peter has the best line in the movie. He quips, "Nobody feels like an adult. That's the world's dirty secret." There's another line that resonated with me, personally, considering I saw this film exactly one month away from my 20th birthday. Once again, it's from Peter. He says, "Since I was 19, I've never felt like I was not 19." The film is also great at articulating the things we leave unsaid for fear of embarrassment or reproach. In one pivotal scene, Zibby tells Jesse that she enjoys a series of young-adult vampire-romance novels (a reference to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and similar books). Jesse cannot fathom this, and reads one of the books to see what the fuss is all about. His verdict is that it is the worst book ever written in the English language, and this starts an argument with Zibby. The central truth espoused through this scene is that we hate it when people like things that we don't, because it destroys our conceptualisation of that person. As much as we try to accept that person's taste, we can't, and it's irrational. 

There is not a single bad performance to be seen here. Radnor seems to have carried over his everyman style of acting that he showcased in Happythankyoumoreplease. It's convincing that Zibby could fall in love with him, even despite that noteworthy age difference. Olsen plays Zibby as a girl who is at once extremely confident and yet so naive and fickle. It's really amazing how quickly she can go from extreme to extreme. This is a girl who, as a student of improv drama, can make anything happen. However, when she's not on the theatre stage, improvisation does not have the power to solve absolutely everything. As usual, Richard Jenkins is flawless, and it still annoys me that he hasn't had many starring roles in his career. Allison Janney is brilliant as Professor Fairfield, Jesse's favourite professor of all time. She brings sardonic wit to the role, and smashes Jesse's perception that she is the amiable, enthusiastic professor who taught him about the Romantics all those years ago. The performance that surprised me the most is that of Zac Efron. He plays an eccentric slacker who occasionally pops up on campus with the intention of making people feel good. Efron's role would not have been difficult to play, but he is a perfect fit for it. When he tells Jesse, "You look like an Ethan," it's funny because, to me at least, Josh Radnor does look like his name could be Ethan. He has the face of an Ethan. 


I'm in awe of how Radnor, at the age of 38, has written and directed a film that is so emotionally mature. Some critics have dismissed Liberal Arts as a feature-length sitcom or soap opera. I strongly disagree. We're never quite sure which characters to root for. They all have their flaws and their intentions are cryptic, but not frustratingly so. I admire how realistic it is, and I particularly enjoyed the moments where I felt like a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on Jesse and Zibby's conversations as they strolled through the pristine grounds of Kenyon College. In a way, it evoked shades of Linklater's Before Sunrise, except Zibby and Jesse did not need to travel abroad to meet each other. With Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts under his belt, Josh Radnor is emerging as one of the most perceptive writers for films about twentysomethings and those just below or above that demographic. He has an eye for how people talk and behave, and his human insights sit somewhere in between Alexander Payne and Miranda July. I really hope people begin to acknowledge him as something other than Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother

We all like to sentimentalise the past. There is great pleasure in reminiscing about the days of old, but, as some of you may have found out the hard way, returning to your old stomping ground rarely holds up to what you think it will be. School reunions only remind us that we're getting old. Returning to an old picnic spot may only hurt you if you notice the surrounding trees have been cut down. A movie you adored in your childhood turns out to be complete and utter trash when you revisit it as an adult. There is an inevitable disconnect between the past and the present. Things change. So do people. You can't grow as a person if you insist on clinging to one fragment of your life. You have to suck it up and embrace what is present. The Portuguese have a word describing an intense longing for someone or something that you know will never return. The word is saudade, and it's this emotion that ultimately underpins Liberal Arts.

4/5 stars.

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