Film review of Liberal Arts

December 21, 2012

(Note:  This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 December 2012.)

Directed and written by Josh Radnor

Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron and John Magaro

“Liberal Arts” is a totally delightful and small romantic film about finding yourself, mentoring and growing up.  That the superbly handsome Josh Radnor (Ted in “How I Met Your Mother”) wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced this film is a bonus.  “Liberal Arts” is, at heart, a great “date” film.  I felt good watching it – knowing that I was “emotionally safe” (no nasty Hitchcockian twists here) – and the feeling remained for some days afterwards.

Radnor is a film-maker to watch.  He is thoroughly Jewish, the product of an Orthodox Jewish day school in Columbus, Ohio, and has a form of classical good looks that has already placed him in the next generation of Jewish writer-director-actor stars in the making:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Segel.  In “Liberal Arts”, he plays Jesse Fisher, a 35 year-old university (“college”) admissions officer living unhappily in New York City.  He is drifting and unhappy; his girlfriend has left him and even his laundry gets stolen.

Then comes an invitation to attend the retirement dinner of a former mentor, Peter Homburg, a college teacher of English at his old college in Ohio (played by the wonderful Richard Jenkins).  Jesse goes, unprepared for the revitalising experience that this visit will turn out to be.  Aside from Peter, he comes across another significant English teacher, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). (Did you ever wonder why almost every American college teacher on screen teaches English; it must have something to do with what screenwriters studied while in unie).

But it’s actually the students that Jesse meets who shift his life course. Revisiting his alma mater allows enables him to shed his depressive, unexpressive and failing adult self and be re-born as a wise and romantic being.

The desperately depressed and introspective Dean (John Magaro, another Jewish actor born in Ohio) gives Jesse the opportunity to become a helpful big brother (“stop reading David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’”, Jesse tells him).  By contrast, Nat (played by heart-throb Zac Efron), is a puck-like wispy free spirit who seems to understand just how to pull Jesse from his self-absorption. And there is Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, best-known for her role as Martha in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), the 19 year-old daughter of Peter’s friends, with whom Jesse, against his better judgment, falls in love.  The scenes between Radnor and Olsen, including a cute formal letter correspondence, all seem to work without any sense of sleaze, primarily because both actors seem so … wholesome is the best word.  And what is the fate of this May-September romance?  You will need to see the film to find out.

There is also the film’s Ohio setting:  an un-named historic and very pretty Midwestern college, complete with gothic stone buildings, set in a small town with a nice intellectual bookshop and a clean and well-lit coffeehouse.  The film was actually shot at Kenyon College, where Radnor received his undergraduate degree and where he was voted best actor in his year.  Stay through the final credit sequence to hear the witty a cappella song “I Want a Kenyon Man”.

Generations of Americans long for that lost and passionately felt world of ideas, literature and music that they experienced during their university years.  Radnor consciously set out to give his character Jesse the opportunity to re-connect with his creative and romantic self through his relationship with Zibby.  He has created a film in which the characters do something very unusual:  they talk about books that matter – as they reportedly also do for Radnor himself.

Ultimately, “Liberal Arts” is probably too small, too sweet and lacks sufficient fireworks to grab a large audience.  There are no “I’ll have what she’s having” scenes like the one in “When Harry Met Sally”, no transformations into a Chassidic character at the dinner table (Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”) and no desperately mis-matched mild Jews and tough WASPs (Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro in “Meet the Parents”).  It’s not that kind of film.  What Radnor gives us instead is a meditative and thoroughly pleasant romance where the main characters grow and the world seems that much nicer at the end.

Watch the trailer for the film here:


Interested in the “I Want a Kenyon Man” song which features at the end?  You can listen to it through this web page.

Below:  Radnor and Olsen walking on the Kenyon College campus:


(Final note:  “Liberal Arts” astonishingly only grossed $391,176 in the North American box office earlier this year.  This is in no way a representation of how lovely this film is.)