Director: Josh Radnor
Writer: Josh Radnor
Stars: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Alison Janney
Release date: September 14th, 2012
Distributor: IFC Films
Running time: 97 minutes
Best part: The witty Screenplay.
Worst part: The heavy-handed messages.
Building the foundations of a successful career and profound personal existence can have an effect on any college graduate. While looking back on the good old college days, thinking of the person you were could cause regret and heartache in the present. Liberal Arts discusses this issue with a witty and optimistic outlook. Josh Radnor’s new film defines him as both an auteur and a prolific director of fun yet painfully realistic dramedies.
Thirty-five year old Jesse Fisher(Radnor)’s New York-based lifestyle is crumbling under his feet. A bad break up, stolen laundry, a boring job, a deep love of books and an innate desire to ignore everyone culminates into existential angst. Relief comes in the form of an invitation to his favourite college teacher’s retirement celebrations. Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) finds Jesse to be a friend and protege, admiring his love of literature. Jesse’s attention however is drawn away from his mentor to the seductive beauty of nineteen year old Zibby (Olsen). Zibby and Jesse soon form a careless friendship, despite their 16 year age difference. Jesse is then forced to make the tough decisions Zibby has not yet been introduced to.
Radnor’s eye for imaginative yet occasionally brutal drama has formed the basis for his second independent feature. Known primarily for his role as Ted on hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, both his first feature Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts have turned Radnor into someone to look out for. His script is a smart balance of snarky comic sensibilities and profound romantic-drama conventions. Now known for both comedic and dramatic talent, Radnor’s direction is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early period of Annie Hall and Manhattan. Both Radnor and Allen succinctly and creatively depict New York, Intertwining relationships and the problems associated with life itself. Jesse’s perspective on art, politics and society is highlighted through the contrast between New York and his old college grounds. The film highlights problems concerning sudden change, human connection and infinite possibilities. Jesse’s once optimistic persona has turned into a cynical yet still hopeful shadow of its former self. He now revels in opinionated discussion and helping anyone he can to see the harsh realities of modern culture.
Jesse is at points likeable and at others hard to get close to. Spelled out as a ‘likeable’ guy at points, his emotions continually change when least expected. Arguments with the light-hearted Zibby may be snappy at points (especially in their heated debate over Twilight-related material), but his constant desire to have his own way becomes tiresome. having said that Radnor delivers a charismatic portrayal of someone down on his luck with his head held high. A bleakly honest, world weary soul with a thirst for knowledge, his heart is in the right place but his head is understandably elsewhere. He and Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) convey instant chemistry, becoming a believable couple in the face of realistic hurdles. An optimistic and opinionated individual, Olsen’s Zibby happily embodies unique principals. She illustrates that ‘yes’ is the best way to enjoy every day, giving Jesse’s outlook on life a whole new understanding. Jenkins (having a stellar year following Killing Them Softly and The Cabin in the Woods) continues his fine form as Jesse’s mentor. His frustration with retirement leads to a familiar fear of change, expressing a wide range of emotions in his intense performance.
“Grace, I realized, is neither time nor place dependent. All we need is the right soundtrack.” (Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), Liberal Arts).
The film’s love of art, culture and democracy is illustrated through Jesse’s shattered mentality. Going back to where he feels at home, the change between Iowa and New York defines the importance of tradition and a deeper meaning for life in a world dominated by popular culture. The film’s themes such as transition, age, politics, romance, culture and retirement all interweave into every conflict and witty dialogue sequence. Despite Radnor’s smart writing and profound outlook on society, Liberal Arts is conservative and awkwardly condescending simultaneously. The film’s light hearted tone leaves many important conflicts without significant development. Jesse’s broken psyche is relieved in one underused sub plot with a mentally unstable male student. While the romantic aspect is also touched on lightly, despite Jesse and Zibby’s instant connection. Their problems are quickly and easily resolved, lacking the depth of similar relationship-based films like (500) Days of Summer. The film however has a keen eye for literature, music and valuable ideals. Vivaldi and Beethoven interweave beautifully into every montage. While Jesse’s love of reading defines how both knowledge and analysis define the power of culture, opinion, and intellect.
Despite the cutesy messages, Liberal Arts is a fun, enlightening, and intriguing dramedy. Radnor, launching himself far away from HIMYM, the TV star has set his affairs in order and delivered an assured cinematic effort.