Film of the week: Liberal Arts

In which Josh Radnor returns to his real-life alma mater and acts out a May-December Peter Pan romance with an improv-drama student played by Elizabeth Olsen. Catherine Wheatley tries to look kindly.

Catherine Wheatley
Updated:

from our October 2012 issue

L.P. Hartley may have written that the past is a foreign country, but that’s not always the case. Like many universities, Kenyon College, where most of Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts takes place, is stuck in a kind of temporal loop. Tutors, buildings, bookshops, parties – all stay the same as the years pass. The only thing that changes is the students, whose time there is but fleeting and yet who remain indelibly marked by an experience they consider unique to themselves.

Radnor stars in his self-penned, self-directed film as 35-year-old Jesse, a stagnating school admissions officer ready for a change. Stewing in the boredom of adult life – two-bed rental, a job that pays the bills, one long-term relationship just over, another doubtless not far off – Jesse flees New York for his alma mater at the behest of his former professor Peter (the ever-excellent Richard Jenkins, playing with type as a dorky sad-sack), who wants him to speak at his retirement dinner. Here, Peter’s friends introduce Jesse to their daughter Elizabeth (Zibby for short), a sophomore studying drama. He is struck by Zibby’s take on improv theatre, in which a performer must always say yes to any suggestion. He is perhaps more captivated by the fact that of all the adults around the table he is the only one to catch on.

Occupying the space (both literally and metaphorically) between two generations, it’s small surprise that Jesse is drawn to Zibby’s peach-skinned, wide-eyed incarnation of youth and innocence over her parents’ settled domesticity, particularly given that he is back in the place of his own coming of age. Seated on the single bed in Zibby’s shared dorm room, however, Jesse begins to see the relationship as the regressive step that Peter – also struggling with ageing – suggests it might be. Jesse is a classic Peter Pan figure – only this boy who doesn’t want to grow up finds to his mortification that at some point he has.

Liberal Arts is hardly a radical departure for Radnor. Riffing on the same themes and characters that populated his 2010 debut feature Happythankyoumoreplease, it also leans heavily on the sitcom set-ups and televisual aesthetics of his best-known work as an actor, How I Met Your Mother. On the plus side, this results in brisk, breezy pacing, neat comic timing and a measured balance of the serious and the sentimental. A rather bland visual style (including a tired montage of New York City streets) and a predilection for pat resolutions are, however, the drawbacks. By comparison with Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, for example – to which it might be considered something of a thirtysomethings-in-crisis companion piece – it’s a far less flawed film, but it also takes fewer risks.

And if there’s something terribly pedestrian about Liberal Arts, a more properly awkward problem is its implicit misogyny. Elizabeth Olsen offers a sweet, gracious and surprisingly mature (indeed perhaps too mature) performance as Zibby, but the condescending May-December romance still grates. Radnor doesn’t help matters by juxtaposing the naive 19-year-old virgin with Allison Janney’s jaded professor, a bitter sexual predator who doesn’t hold back when ripping Jesse’s romantic illusions to shreds. As Jesse’s ultimate, age-appropriate girlfriend Ana, Elizabeth Reaser has little more to do than sit back and simper.

But Radnor keeps his Woody Allen-esque self-obsessive sufficiently on the right side of self-aware to keep him from disappearing up his own backside, and the film is undeniably charming. There’s something about the way it oozes sincerity – from Jesse’s earnest assertion (from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) that “the purpose of fiction is to combat loneliness” to the lovingly crafted shots of Kenyon College (from whence Radnor himself graduated) – that engenders fondness. After Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts once more proves Radnor to be an elegant, engaging, wholly likeable lead, and a competent writer-director. If he wants to evolve beyond his television roots, though, he might yet have to do a little growing up.

Further reading

  • Film review: Take This Waltz - image

    Film review: Take This Waltz

    Michelle Williams’s bohemian young wife itches for magic in Sarah Polley’s gauche but deeply bittersweet romantic fable, says Catherine Wheatley.

    Catherine Wheatley

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