I usually avoid romantic comedies like the plague. The Black Plague. Especially when they deal with the ever so tedious trials and tribulations of 20 & 30 somethings. There is always so much more romance and very little comedy. What comedy there is, is feeble, telegraphed and forced. And the romance is usually quite bullshit as well.
Much like, say, “How I Met Your Mother” on television.
So I’m not quite sure how I ended up watching “Liberal Arts” alone on a Sunday night. Especially since it was written, directed and starring Josh Radnor who bears more than a passing responsibility for the overrated and enduring mystery of public taste that is “How I Met Your Mother”.
I guess I thought it would be more about arts and books and reading and stuff.
I guess I thought there would be pain and drama with eternal truths revealed.
I guess I didn’t think.
Now the preceding 148 words probably sounds like some kind of negative bitch-fest – and it is. Because “Liberal Arts” was actually quite good and has caused me to reappraise Mr Josh Radnor.
He’ll be so thrilled, I know it.
This is Radnor’s second film, coming after the 2010 “happythankyoumoreplease” which covers similar thematic ground. “Liberal Arts” opened in January at the 2012 Sundance festival.
Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is a 35 year old liberal arts graduate working in New York in college admissions. Uninspired by his job, unloved by his city and unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. Jesse drifts along oblivious.
A call out of the blue from his old college professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to his alma mater (Kenyon College in Ohio) to speak at his farewell dinner.
Jesse jumps at the chance. He has a genuine respect for, and bond with, Hoberg as well as a longing to get back to the glorious environment where he felt the most possibility – where he felt most alive.
Whilst driving with Hoberg Jesse sees sensual 50-something Professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). We get the distinct feeling that Professor Fairfield awakened more than the love of literature in Jesse 15 years ago. Much more.
Its also here that he also meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) a 19 year old student whose enthusiasm for drama, music and literature is fresh, powerful and unrestrained. Despite the 16 year age difference Zibby sees in Jesse a kindred spirit. Someone different from all of the other boys her own age. Jesse finds himself longing for the vibrancy and possibility of student life – personified through Zibby, but he’s clearly self-concious about their age difference.
When Jesse returns to New York he maintains a beautiful and nostalgic ‘relationship’ with Zibby in the form of hand-written letters discussing their shared love of classical music, with Zibby playing the role of teacher and mentor.
At Zibby’s insistence Jesse returns to Ohio, however on this second trip Jesse’s hang-ups about his age appear to be overwhelming. This results in some unexpected departures from the romantic script for both Jesse and Zibby.
Meanwhile Hoberg has had serious misgivings about the wisdom of his decision to retire and a depressed student, Dean (John Magaro) comes to lean on Jesse for support.
Jesse returns again to New York with relationships and his arc in life unresolved, however a crisis brings him back to Ohio for a final resolution between the promise of his past and the unexpected potential of his present.
This movie is quietly seductive and effortlessly enjoyable. It is like looking at a beautiful painting after you’ve had two glasses of shiraz*. You know that what you’re looking at is beautiful but you’re not sure why.
*Note – I actually had two glasses of shiraz while I watched it, courtesy of Cinema Europa’s new, ‘you can drink in the theatre now’, policy.
Liberal Arts does an admirable job of looking at hope, disappointment, ambition and the gulf between expectations and outcomes from the perspectives of three generations. It also does this with a genuine affection for and use of fine literature and music to make some of its more telling and poignant points.
The acting by and large is quite good, with a few beautifully handled moments from Olsen and Janney in particular. There are some interesting appearances by Zac Effron which still have me puzzled – in a good way.
And they’d be out of place and I probably would have spilled my shiraz and lost the inner glow that had built up.
The cinematography and sound gets you in – without you being aware. I fell in love with Kenyon College and want to do a Liberal Arts degree there. Who’s fantasizing now?
So well done Josh Radnor – you’re a talented guy. Mind you I’m holding firm to my opinion of “How I Met Your Mother”
8 out of 10.