SIFF Film Review – Liberal Arts
Amongst the best movies to make their local premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival this year was the new dramedy Liberal Arts. Written, directed by, and starring TV’s Josh Radnor, this story concerns a lonely and somewhat bored college admissions administrator in New York who is called back to his alma mater in the Midwest to speak at his former mentor’s retirement party. As Jesse Fisher, Radnor plays the kind of career English department academic that probably exists at almost all universities. When asked what his major was, his reply is “I was English…with a minor in history. Just to make sure I was fully unemployable.” He’s the kind of guy who has spent his whole life in his head and extends his college studies well into his adult life to avoid the real world. But when visiting his old school, he makes a touching friendship with a decidedly younger undergrad played by Elizabeth Olsen.
While these two characters are extremely attracted to each other based on a mutual love of literature and discussion, their age difference keeps them apart in a much more mature fashion than seen in most films. A guy in his mid-30s is mentally in a different place than a 19-year-old girl. She still wants to party with friends on occasion. While he tries to enjoy this again, he quickly learns that he’s simply matured beyond that aspect of life. But he misses the sparkling conversation that being a younger student used to represent. He misses campus life. He misses spending most of his time idly talking about ideas instead of the mendacity of the adult world.
This theme of being caught “in between” is further punctuated by Jesse’s mentor, Professor Hoberg. Inhabited by the always welcome presence of Richard Jenkins (isn’t this guy always one of the best things in whatever movie he’s in?), the retiring teacher is facing his own forced excision from academia. Very much an extrapolation of where Jesse is headed, the professor is being forced out of the English department simply because he is no longer needed. He comments that on a campus surrounded by all that youth, one often feels nineteen as well. But when you look in the mirror, you often end up asking yourself who that old person is staring back at you. Jesse definitely sees echoes of his future.
The main character runs into a pot-smoking intellectual hippie, played amusingly by Zac Efron, and eventually hooks up with the professor from his youth on whom he had a long-standing crush, portrayed by the scene-stealing Allison Janney. Her harsh, disaffected attitude towards him is often hilarious.
For full disclosure, I will flat-out state that I’m a huge fan of the show Radnor stars on, How I Met Your Mother. I feel it is amongst the best traditional three-camera sitcoms currently on TV, if not possibly amongst the best ever. So I am predisposed to liking Josh Radnor (or Ted, as fans of the show know him). Liberal Arts is the second film he’s written and directed, after 2010’s HappyThankYouMorePlease. It is funny, small, sweet, and charming.
It’s also refreshing to see the difference in age between an older guy and a younger girl actually addressed realistically in a movie. So often, Hollywood famously gives us movies with a much older man paired with a hot young lady, as if it’s completely natural (Entrapment leaps to mind). Woody Allen’s Manhattan is one of the only others I can think of that actually deals with this issue, but even that film’s message can get overshadowed by the highly public age-inappropriateness in Allen’s own life.
It’s possible that Radnor could be accused of over-sentimentalizing the college years. The campuses are made to look beautiful. Discussions of Hemingway and deep issues flow constantly between the two leads. And the Jenkins character, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, begs for his job back. But all of this nostalgia for those young adult years is part of the point. Jesse is looking at his own past with rose-colored glasses. It takes him a while to wake up to the fact that his memories may be prettier than reality.
Overall, the film is a charmer and worth checking out.
Final Grade: A-