Josh Radnor's debut film Happythankyoumoreplease flipped the hipster/indie rom-com formula on its head in the most endearing of ways. Liberal Arts, his sophomore effort as writer-director-stars, stumbles in ways his debut did not, occasionally treading too close to contrived territory but ultimately delivering an enjoyable film.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions counselor in New York, who gets a call from his favorite college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asking if he'll come back to campus and speak at the professor's retirement party. And so begins the nostalgic trip that ultimately turns out to be a progression through a regression, if you follow.
On this jaunt, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore with whom he forms an unlikely connection once she gives him a mix CD of classical music from a survey class she took that “changed her life” by her own admission (groan). Before you roll your eyes at the predictability of it, this sentiment is at the core of the bookishness bend of Liberal Arts. Radnor does an amazing job of portraying the wide-eyed intellectual revelry that still remains the best part about college. As Jesse tells Dean (John Magaro), a student less enthusiastic about the college life than him, “it’s the only time you get to do this. Sit around, read books all day, have great conversations about ideas. People out in the world… they are not really doing that.”
The romance between Jesse and Zibby blossoms through the old-fashioned medium of writing letters to each other (in line with Jesse’s love affair with the British Romantics) and make for some light, mirthful moments. As it develops, however, the coming-of-age issues bring about a pretty strong element of discomfort, if not downright cringe-inducing dialogue, when Zibby wants to take their relationship into intimate territory. Oddly enough, once the absurdity of falling for a girl 16 years his junior dawns on Jesse, does he realize Zibby may not be the only one with some growing up to do and that he needs to get back to adulthood.
The comedic elements in Liberal Arts are to be found in some interesting places--such as Zac Efron’s turn as a tree-hugging hippie guru who spouts aphorisms like “There is no reason to be afraid because everything is OK.” Jesse’s friendship with Dean, the depressed student writer he meets at the college, also allows Radnor to hash out the theme of Liberal Arts: as great as college is, growing up is not all that bad either. Their interaction yields some of the more clever lines from the film: “I am taking you off post-modernists. There are these vampire books. They will empty your mind completely.”
Jesse’s line about “stumbling into something like contentment” rings especially true of adulthood. Maybe not all it’s cracked up to be, but it's necessarily cause for nostalgia'ing one’s college years as the only good time in one’s life. Radnor’s dialogue comes off fairly ham-handed at times, but the message is definitely a positive one.
If one can get past the romantic relationship [funny, since this is supposedly a rom-com] which is too cringe-inducing at times, the supporting roles are compelling and amusing in a droll sort of way. Radnor has a knack for imbuing his films with enough nerdishness to appeal to the English majors in all of us and as such, his films are well…heart-warming while avoiding maudlin territory for the most part, even if he does tread dangerously close to it occasionally.