Unlikely love in a college escape
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, September 21, 2012
Returning to one’s alma mater has a way of prompting temporary amnesia. Memories of bad grades and brutal hangovers disappear as soon as the lush landscaping comes into view, beckoning visitors to lay down and relax with a good book under the warm sun. Ah, when life was simple.
That kind of idyll-induced brain lapse fuels writer-director-actor Josh Radnor’s second feature, the easygoing romantic dramedy “Liberal Arts.”
Jesse (Radnor) is a 35-year-old New Yorker working in a college admissions office who spends much of his spare time with his nose in a book. He is a bibliophile of the highest order, reading while walking down the street with a bag of laundry perched on his shoulder, reading under the dim light of a bedside lamp, even reading while waiting in line to buy more books.
The concrete, steel and petty thieves of New York appear to overwhelm Jesse, so he jumps at the chance for a brief respite when a favorite college professor invites his former student to a retirement dinner. As soon as Jesse sets foot on the manicured grounds of the Ohio liberal arts college he once attended, the rose-colored glasses firmly affix to his face. His newfound optimism extends to an encounter with beatific and energetic 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who seems to offer an escape to a place where this restless 35-year-old might momentarily evade his existential frustrations. He can’t relive his college years, but at least he can hover -- in what turns out to be multiple visits -- while his age-inappropriate love interest goes through the process for the first time.
During his visits to the unnamed college, Jesse encounters a number of other characters, all similarly disgruntled with their current lots in life. There’s Dean (John Magaro), a loner with a similar affection for books; the bitter romantics expert Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney); and Peter Hoberg (the always wonderful Richard Jenkins), who claims to hate his job and retires only to realize he isn’t ready to leave. There’s a clear theme of discontent here.
But some rays of sunshine creep through. Aside from Zibby, that brightness comes from Nat (Zac Efron), an earflap cap-sporting stock character -- the stoner dude-type philosopher -- who waxes poetic on topics ranging from caterpillar-to-butterfly transformations and crop circles.
While a few story lines intersect, the film feels thankfully less busy than Radnor’s first big-screen outing, “Happythankyoumoreplease.” Still, this film possesses a similar triviality to that first effort. “Liberal Arts” has its bright moments and it’s an enjoyable watch, but it probably won’t serve up outbursts of laughter or moments of epiphany. Part of that may be due to Radnor’s insistence on including some strangely banal moments. Dealing with such a short amount of time, filmmakers usually opt to cut out life at its most expository, yet “Liberal Arts” includes humdrum first introductions and the overdone, not to mention unappetizing, parade through a cafeteria lunchline.
There also are some stilted characters, especially the overly acerbic misanthrope whom Janney embodies. The character feels like a waste given her talent for more varied portrayals.
Radnor’s Jesse comes close to caricature, too, but ends up as something resembling a curiously appealing wet blanket. He would no doubt look down on the use of a Kindle, and his hand-written letters to Zibby regarding classical music border on pretentious. But despite his stubborn insistence on wistfulness and his literary snobbery, Jesse remains the agreeable everyman familiar to fans of Radnor’s work on the popular television show “How I Met Your Mother.” His charm sneaks up on you.
Nat echoes this sentiment in his far-out California tone as he wonders, “Why do I like this guy so much?” Zibby’s response: “Because he’s likable.” It’s prosaic, but it’s true, and the same could be said for the movie. Maybe life is simple after all.
Contains sexual situations and underage drinking.