Your enjoyment of Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts will depend almost entirely on how much pretension you can take in one sitting. Some will find the film’s dense, overly articulate writing style, intellectual discussions about academia, and earnest celebration of classical music delightfully refreshing, while others will no doubt stand up at the half-hour mark, violently toss their popcorn to the ground, shout “I’ve had enough of these elitist pricks!” and storm out of the theatre in a huff. For this film, both seem like perfectly reasonable responses.
I myself fall somewhere in the middle, admiring Radnor’s obvious, if sometimes overbearing, passion for cerebral introspection, while also being able to chuckle at the unintentional ways Radnor’s script tiptoes into self-parody. At the point where the two main characters are writing each other letters, reciting phrases like “as the music began to swell, I suddenly realized I had hands” while Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony plays in the background, the word ‘pretentious’ does not even begin to do the material justice.
But I digress. I like Liberal Arts. It is a rough and unpolished film, one that could use more focus – narratively, linguistically, or otherwise – in both the scripting and editing stages. But Radnor has crafted this film with nothing but honesty, and sincerity, as I have always said, goes a long way towards engaging the audience. I will take an uneven, ostentatious film over hollow, studio-manufactured fluff any day. Liberal Arts is a sincere piece of filmmaking, and I admire it greatly for that alone.
Josh Radnor, in addition to writing and directing, stars as Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old College admissions counselor at a crossroads in life. He is dissatisfied with his work, and finds himself longing for the days when he was a University student in Ohio. A retirement party for an old Professor gives Jesse the chance to return to his alma mater, where his ruminations on the past are complicated by the advances of Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious sophomore with whom he shares much in common.
Radnor has many issues on his mind here, most of which feel highly personal. At the film’s heart lies the contrast between College life and life life, and one can imagine Radnor gaining inspiration for the project simply by touring his own alma mater. Seeing where we once were invariably makes us reconsider where we presently are, a concept Radnor explores rather gracefully, and in more depth than one might expect. Basic ideas such as ‘I am not where I once thought I would be’ are addressed, but more interesting is Radnor’s assertion that our collective nostalgia for College years may be little more than a gradual, age-based romanticism. In the film’s best scenes, Jesse converses with a lonely, genius student who feels out of place at University, and finds himself confronting the notion that dissatisfaction follows us throughout life, even during those times when we are meant to feel most free.
The pseudo-romance between Jesse and Zibby is the crux of the narrative, though, contrasting the idealism of youth with the apathy of middle age. Their relationship can be unsettling to watch at times, though this is no artistic failing on Radnor’s part. Jesse’s courting of a girl sixteen years his junior is meant to be uncomfortable, for it symbolizes a difficult truth: That when life beats us down, the purity of immaturity becomes attractive, even if regressing in such a way is never good for one’s mental health. Jesse is energized by his long walks and conversations with Zibby, for she makes him feel as though anything is possible, just as he did when he was her age. But though idealism has its virtues, part of growing up involves realizing that some things are not possible, and reverting to one’s teenage state prevents one from learning to work within life’s limitations.
I, of course, do not know Radnor, and cannot assume to know what experiences compelled him to explore these themes, but they feel highly introspective, as though the script itself is a form of therapy. I like that. One can hear Radnor’s voice in every character – a little too much, in fact, at times – each representing a different portion of his psyche, and listening to him reason through these issues is an interesting experience. A story told with honesty will always bear material of thematic interest, and I found plenty of Liberal Arts to be insightful, eloquent, and relevant to the world in which we live.
Radnor does overreach at times, piling critical conversations about classical music, literature, academic instruction, basic philosophy, and even the repugnance of Twilight onto an already hefty foundation. A more experienced hand could probably caress all this material into a perfectly cohesive package, but Radnor has not yet reached that point, and there are times when his various intellectual musings sound like little more than ostentatious wanderings. The film also takes too long to end, apparently unsure of which punctuation note is the best to go out on, and ultimately overstays its welcome.
That being said, the film is very well directed, and features strong performances all across the board. Radnor in particular coaxes a much better performance out of himself than he has ever displayed on How I Met Your Mother, acting with compelling nuance and authenticity. Elizabeth Olsen continues to prove herself a formidable screen presence as Zibby, expertly walking that fine line between genuine young-adult precocity and off-putting, disingenuous teenage wisdom. Richard Jenkins – who, as a rule, makes every film better – is his usual, wonderful self as Jesse’s Professor and mentor Peter, and Zac Efron is an unexpected delight as Nat, a friendly stoner who serves as the film’s comic highlight.
Liberal Arts is not a great film, but it is clear, while watching, that Radnor has a great one in him. If he continues to develop his craft, relying less on pretension and more on down-to-earth pathos to get his messages across, I believe he could be a very strong filmmaker indeed. For now, Liberal Arts has much to like, and even those moments where it goes astray are interesting for the ways in which it falters. The film is worth a watch.