Liberal Arts-attachment0

Liberal Arts

Movie Information

The Story: A bookish 30-something college admissions officer — freshly dumped by his girlfriend — returns to his old college and finds a possible new love and more. The Lowdown: A thoroughly enjoyable film about the allure and pitfalls of the academic world and experience — especially when viewed through the filter of nostalgia.
Score:

Genre: Romantic Comedy Drama
Director: Josh Radnor (Happythankyoumoreplease)
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron
Rated: PG-13

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

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

13 thoughts on “Liberal Arts

  1. Big Al

    “I’ve also been told that the dialogue is unrealistic and pretentious…”

    Ken is that not a pretentious statement in itself? (By them, I mean, not by you.) Real people do actually say such things, albeit not all in the same conversation or even the same day. All forms of entertainment (TV, movies, novels) compress these moments into the time alloted.

    Some films focus on the relationships between the characters and minimize or miss entirely the “point” that the film is trying to make.

    Other films belabor the “point”, thus overwhelming the relationships and reducing the film to a dull sermon.

    This film was IMO the perfect balance between the two. It also spoke to me on so many levels personally that I could go on for hours…but I gush.

    Anybody know what college was used in this film? The campus was gorgeous!

  2. Ken Hanke

    Of course, the truth is that all good dialogue — all memorable dialogue — tends to be unrealistic. No one, for example, talks like the characters in a Coen Brothers movie, but, thank Clapton, they do in those movies. I am not, by the bye, suggesting that the dialogue here is on a par with the Coens, but the point is the same.

    Although I have come to dislike the term “pretentious’ as a criticism (almost as much as I dislike “self-indulgent”), I can understand the criticism as concerns the voice overs from the letters. That said, I would expect letter like those to lean toward what we call pretentious.

    For me, this was by no means a great film, but I enjoyed it, found it entertaining, and not bereft of ideas. Plus, as I noted, I give extra credit to any indie made by people who use a tripod and know the fundamentals of lighting. If I never see another shaky-cam, indifferently or poorly lit indie film again (and, yes, I am thinking about Beasts of the Southern Wild), that’d be just dinky-do with me.

    The film was shot at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, which is, in fact, where the movie is supposed to be taking place.

  3. Jeremy Dylan

    Of course, the truth is that all good dialogue — all memorable dialogue — tends to be unrealistic.

    I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.

  4. Big Al

    “…it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

    While there are gentler ways to quash enthusiasm, I can see Ken wielding said truncheon.

    Ken, Please speak to Jesse’s choice of a job in college admissions. Do you think this was based on a desire to remain tethered to college life after graduation? Evidence of the limitations of his Liberal Arts degree? Or, combined with his intervention with Magaro’s manic undergrad, a real talent at helping students negotiate the rat’s maze of higher learning?

    In hindsight, I am surprised that this was not addressed more clearly in the film. Like, will Jesse enjoy his job more after this experience?

  5. Ken Hanke

    I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.

    Something like that.

  6. Ken Hanke

    While there are gentler ways to quash enthusiasm, I can see Ken wielding said truncheon.

    I’m more of iron-bar-hidden-in-a-rolled-up-newspaper kind of guy.

    Ken, Please speak to Jesse’s choice of a job in college admissions. Do you think this was based on a desire to remain tethered to college life after graduation? Evidence of the limitations of his Liberal Arts degree?

    I think you hit it on the second one — and that is addressed in passing (“to make sure I was completely unemployable”). My guess is he just kind of ended up in the job. Anything beyond that…well, that’s speculation.

  7. Xanadon't

    I’ve also been told that the dialogue is unrealistic and pretentious

    This never really entered my mind while watching the movie. Except maybe when it gets into the letter-writing/narration territory. But of course the written word will generally contain flourishes and instances of deliberate or self-conscious style that don’t often permeate speech. (See sentence immediately previous, as way of example.)

    Ah, but cleverly (and subtly) enough, the film even addresses that very fact in the way it visually presents Jesse writing his first letter to Zibby. For all the romanticizing foisted on hand-written letters, I got a kick out of Jesse sitting in front of his laptop, rewriting (and no doubt editing) with pen and paper what he’d already typed up on screen.

  8. Ken Hanke

    There are those who say that I speak almost exactly the way I write (only with extra profanity). I’ve never been certain if that was meant as a compliment.

  9. Xanadon't

    Provided you’re not regularly getting tossed onto bus floors or wrestled into garbage cans mid-sentence, I’d imagine those claims to be compliments.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Well, I can’t immediately recall any such vigorous frivolity, and I feel reasonably certain that I would.

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