Despite a somewhat tired plot, and a bit of a pretentious rather than intelligent tone, Liberal Arts slowly comes together by its second half.
Josh Radnor’s (How I Met Your Mother) sophomore film finds him grappling with the inability, or unwillingness, to grow up. Rather than the coming-of-age story of a teen entering adulthood, it’s about already being in adulthood and not being able to fully realize it. Sure, it’s been done a thousand times before but, ultimately, art—and film—isn’t necessarily about the log line but about how that plot is presented. In that regard, Radnor is able to lift his film out of the indie film purgatory, if only barely, due to his well-rounded characters and ability to create credible tension.
Radnor plays Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old admissions officer for a New York City school who’s summoned back to his alma mater when one of his professors, and mentor, announces his retirement. Jesse may have a job and be living in the “greatest city in the world,” but he’s anything but content. He doesn’t feel any connection with the kids he’s helping advise on their future paths, and the claustrophobia of living in the city and an apartment the size of a dorm is getting to him. His only solace is through books, a passion he’s had ever since becoming an English major. So when his old professor, Peter Holburg (Richard Jenkins), asks him to come back, he doesn’t hesitate for a minute.
It’s hard not to think of Garden State while watching the film, if only due to the similarities of Zach Braff and Josh Radnor being sitcom stars turned writer/directors, but also due to both film’s theme of a homecoming. For Garden State, it was about the literal coming home to a place one’s avoided, whereas Jesse is coming home to a place that represents the best years of his life. While there, basking in his former glory, he’s introduced to current sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). The daughter of Holburg’s friends, they share a friendly lunch but nothing more. However, later on as Jesse is wandering the campus late at night, he comes across a guardian angel –for lack of a better term– of sorts in Nat (Zac Efron) and they find their way to a party where he again meets Zibby, who’s obviously holding a torch for him.
Despite the 15 year difference in age, they really do connect and she asks him to write her letters. Real letters, with pen and paper. While interesting, it’s small contrivances like these that seem overly heavy handed and, therefore, somewhat pretentious as Radnor seems to not so much damn modern technology, film, television, etc., but strongly assert his obvious love for books. But not just all books, the books he studied in college as an English major, i.e. “the classics.”
The film’s first half is slow and somewhat sloppy, with Radnor setting up Jesse’s ennui in a more get-to-the-point sort of way rather than manifesting it organically the way he does his ultimate and inevitable growth in the second half. He introduces many characters, like Zibby and Prof. Holburg, as well as his true favorite professor, Prof. Fairfield (Allison Janney), who’s ripe with a toxic mix of intelligence and sex appeal, another student he crosses paths with, the sullen yet bright Dean (John Magro) and finally, the aforementioned Nat. At first they seem sloppily thrown in as either blasts from the past, like Prof. Fairfield, or just there for comedic relief, in the case of Nat. But as the film progresses all of these characters ultimately serve a puprose –yes, organically– in Jesse’s plight. And for those wondering about Efron’s turn as neo-hippy Nat who doles out life lessons as simple as “everything’s OK,” he is surprisingly funny but also poignant, despite what should be platitudes, thanks to Radnor’s obvious care for his characters.
It’s also to Radnor’s strength that as Jesse and Zibby’s relationship deepens throughout their letter writing correspondence, and it becomes more and more apparent that they share an emotional and intellectual connection, the difference in age is always a concern, at least on Jesse’s part. But it’s not just about the age difference that worries Jesse, it’s where they both are in life. For some, 15 years is acceptable, and that may be so. But for Jesse, it’s the fact that Zibby is still in college. She’s still learning and developing. And while it may not be precisely true, Jesse is already fully developed.
If anything, Liberal Arts shows Josh Radnor’s potential as a writer and director. He doesn’t prove he’s arrived as a fully developed auteur but he does prove he has the talent. He creates interesting and developed characters that are enhanced by the actors he’s chosen to fill the roles. Janney and Jenkins are superb, as they almost always are, and are subtle yet powerful as members of the elder generation. Olsen is commendable as Zibby but, unfortunately, doesn’t elevate the part to anything truly remarkable. Surprisingly, it may be Zac Efron who’s the real stand out. Despite only a handful of scenes and a character that’s purposefully comedic, he doesn’t go overboard and imbues it with a similar subtlety like that of Janney and Jenkins. It may not be anything truly enlightening, but it’s surely worth a viewing.
Rating: 3 out of 5