Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Liberal Arts

When people write about liminal moments they wax poetic about the “coming of age.”  And when they crack jokes, it’s usually about the follies associated with the mid-life crisis.  And what of the thirty years that lie between?  That is what the plot of Liberal Arts is about – those three decades when an individual struggles to graduate from who they are to what they think they should be as adults.  When Richard Jenkins’ Peter Hoberg tells Josh Radnor’s Jesse that the world’s dirty little secret is that none of us feel like adults, he reveals the singular thread that ties the plot of Liberal Arts together. 

The narrative follows Jesse (Josh Radnor) – a overly sentimental man-child who spends too much time in the pages of a book and in his own head.  Lost as a thirty something, he carries around an idealized vision of his youth that is reinvigorated by a return trip to his college campus to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins).  The experience of seeing some old familiar faces, befriending a troubled youth (John Magaro), and striking up a romance with a precocious nineteen years old (Ashley Olsen) forces Jesse to take a hard look at his life – past, present, and future – and assess his struggles to grow into adulthood.

Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame, acts as both writer and director in the film and doesn’t completely fall on his face.  The narrative is a bit chatty and there are clearly some moments of self indulgence, but the arcs do a good job of capturing the pitfalls of nostalgia and contrast them nicely with the sense of impeding finality associated with one’s twilight years.  The young who struggle to be young and the old who struggle to be old with the Radnor stuck in the middle creates a natural tension that helps frame his emotional paralysis. 

It’s not a perfect film though.  Some plot elements are cliché and at times realism is sacrificed for an all-too-cute detail.  Furthermore, the tone oddly sacrifices it subtle touch at crucial junctures of the film, instead opting to hammer home points almost ad nauseum.  Still these issues and an ending that is all too predictable are covered up nicely by good acting.  Richard Jenkins is thoughtful, tragic, and genuine as the retiring professor who is fearful of life beyond his world of academia.  Likewise Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby is precocious, charming, and dynamic – the perfect embodiment of a romance that simply-should-not-be.

As for the rest of the cast, I found Josh Radnor’s protagonist satisfactory.  It’s hard to separate him from the character of Ted Mosby but in this film he has penned a character that is not much of a stretch for him to play.  It’s not easy to play a likeable character that does some questionable things, but he pulls it off.  On the other hand, I found the work of the usually solid Allison Janney (as cynical Prof. Judith Fairfield) an exercise in hokey over-the-top acting.  Hers was the least palatable of the principle characters and her scenes amongst the worst in the film. 

Clearly this is a movie with the look and feel of the indie production that it is.  It’s dialogue driven and loaded to the gills with sentimentality and nostalgia, and because of this it is not going to appeal to everyone.  However, if films about introspection and those in which the experiences of many come together to paint a complete narrative spark your interest, then this is a movie that you should see.  I don’t think it’s a great movie, but it has some nice qualities.  I don’t think it is supremely entertaining, but I did want to watch it to completion.  Thus, I give Liberal Arts a soft recommendation as a midweek rental that may make you ask yourself a question or two about your life even as you completely forget the film a couple hours after watching it.

Standout Performance: Elizabeth Olsen.  It’s hard not to like the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as she has shown herself to be a good actress with great screen presence.


Post a Comment