[SFF 2012: Review] Liberal Arts
Next screening Friday June 15 at 6.45pm – details and tickets
Liberal Arts is not the most original of works, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to one film in particular. Disaffected young man leaves the city to return to the greener pastures where he spent his formative years; he catches up with old friends, meets some wacky characters who change his worldview for the better and falls for the prettiest girl among them; written, directed and starred in by an earnest-faced young actor from a popular sitcom, and centred chiefly around his character’s journey of self-discovery, and also featuring a cast of acclaimed, mostly older actors who are wonderful but inevitably underused.
Yes, Josh Radnor’s second film (he also wrote, directed and starred in his previous effort happythankyoumoreplease) bears no small resemblance in spirit and purpose to Zach Braff’s
Liberal Arts also owes not a little to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, both in the romance between a startlingly mature teenager and an older guy given to over-thinking things, and in several of the few scenes in New York (swelling music over everyday street scenes, and naturally, two figures silhouetted against a certain bridge). But unlike Allen’s Isaac (who is 42 to Mariel Hemingway’s 17), Jesse tortures himself about the age difference, even as he’s not the one making any of the moves.
Olsen’s character, Zibby, could easily have been the standard-issue Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with her enticing blitheness and insistence that Jesse write her a letter. But she is written to be sweetly predatory towards the older man, and Olsen absolutely conveys the impression that she is confident in what she wants; she is written to have an interest in improv, so the little motif of “say yes to everything” actually makes some contextual sense instead of being a twee life motto, and Olsen makes her both adventurous and vulnerable, sure of herself as well as acknowledging she is a “rough draft” of the grownup she wants to be. (She also dresses not in perfectly coordinated pinafore and cardigan ensembles, but in loose-fitting, comfortable shorts and floral blouses, like a regular college student; whether it was a deliberate choice by Radnor or not, she’s as refreshingly free of the tyranny of the male gaze as any lissom rom-com heroine in recent memory.)
Radnor’s Jesse, apart from his neatish beard, isn’t far removed from his character on How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby, right down to the Ohio connection (both TV and real-life Radnor are form Ohio, and the alma mater Jesse returns to is set, picturesquely, in the midwestern state). His bookishness comes off as a little affected, particularly a subplot involving a troubled student with whom Jesse bonds over a book. (The book is shown to be, but not named as, the late David Foster Wallace’s postmodern doorstopper Infinite Jest – a nice two-percenter for those who derive a special pleasure from recognising references.)
But Radnor is a fairly charming stand-in for the generic young man on a quest of self-discovery; he bounces well off Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney, professors who feel themselves sliding unwillingly into old age under the weight of lived experience, and has terrific chemistry with Olsen, who glows with promise. (There’s also an entertaining appearance by a teen idol for whom I secretly have a lot of time – either I missed his name in the title credits or it wasn’t there, but the surprise is half the fun.) Unlike every whiny disaffected 20-something bildungsroman vanity movie, though, Radnor is actually in his mid-thirties, and the things he has to say about that situation are said quite deftly, through the prisms of the other ages. It’s no Manhattan, but Liberal Arts is a light and lovely exploration of different kinds of romance.