It is complete happenstance that this week finds two films opening about people in their mid-30s going “home” after a breakup. In both cases, the 30-something leads fall into situations involving 19-year-olds. If you’ve already read the review for Hello I Must Be Going, then you know what the other one is. The biggest difference between the films lies in the genders of the leads. That one deals with a 35-year-old woman and this one focuses on a 35-year-old man. (I’m amused to find reviews for this one that think the situation is at least potentially creepy, while that doesn’t seem to be a concern when it’s the woman who’s older.) The situations are more similar than the resulting films. And the tones are strikingly different — for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the genders. I liked both films — a pleasant surprise in both cases, because I wasn’t expecting much — but I’d give Liberal Arts the slight edge. Maybe it’s because I saw it first, or because it doesn’t have an indie-pop soundtrack, or maybe just because I found the direction more assured. It may even be because Elizabeth Olsen (who I like a lot when she isn’t in dreary self-important indies) invariably wears the type of blouses I associate with the cool girls back in the early 1970s.
I may be the perfect audience for Liberal Arts since not only have I never seen the TV sitcom that writer-director-star Josh Radnor stars in, and I’d never even heard of him before watching this. My preconceptions were non-existent. In any case, Radnor plays Jesse, whose girlfriend has just left him and who isn’t particularly happy at his job as an admissions officer at a New York university. He’s in the perfect frame of mind to accept an invitation to go back to his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio, for a retirement party for professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), a man who was either his favorite or second favorite teacher at the college. It’s in this setting — a place where he finds himself drawn to a world where people talk about books and music as if they matter in a way we don’t find in the “real world” — that he meets Zibby (Olsen), a smart college girl whose forthright approach to life (and her undisguised attraction to him) holds an immediate appeal. But it’s an appeal he’s wary of — even after she enters into a correspondence with him and starts sending him classical music mix CDs, which they discuss by mail. (This is actually one of the film’s most accomplished sequences, even if Zibby’s taste in music is a little on the parochial side.) Naturally, the relationship — and the appeal of college life — keeps tugging at him and brings him back to Kenyon.
If this was the extent of the film’s appeal, it might seem a little on the slight side, but this is in many ways less about Jesse’s relationship with Zibby than it is about Jesse’s romance with his romanticized notion of his college life. That’s where the film scores its larger points — as it touches on Hoberg’s retirement, the perils of college for some types (expressed in a small role for John Magaro), the cynical underbelly of professors who’ve perhaps been there too long (Allison Janney) and the simple truth that divides the world of academia from real life. There’s a good bit more going on here than a quirky indie rom-com — and Radnor gets extra credit for knowing what a tripod is and not being afraid of using it.
I’ve seen the film criticized for being like Garden State (2004), which I don’t really think is true in any meaningful way. I’ve also been told that the dialogue is unrealistic and pretentious, which might make a good case for spending more time with better-spoken people. But see it and decide for yourself. You might be as agreeably surprised as I was. Rated PG-13 for sexual content including references, mature thematic material, and some teen drinking.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre