Pretentious is the word that springs to mind when watching Liberal Arts, the second feature from actor-director Josh Radnor. The plot concerns the newly single, thirtysomething, university admissions advisor Jesse Fisher (Radnor, best known for his role as Ted in TV series How I Met Your Mother) who returns to his old university for his old politics professor’s retirement party. Once back on campus Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olson of Martha Marcy May Marlene fame) a peppy, bright young thing who he falls for despite being 15 years his junior.
Age aside, Zibby and Jesse are simply at very different stages in life. Jesse is thinking about what working life demands but is confronted with the temptation to regress upon meeting the young coed. The arrested development concept is the only factor that provides any sense of meaning to this wannabe pseudo-intellectual film. Of course many students are pretentious and in that sense the characters clichéd lines are appropriate, but the fact that the older members of the cast (Richard Jenkins, Radnor, Alison Jenney) are provided with the same trite dialogue hinders the success of this indie flick. Elizabeth Olson is enjoyable but wasted in her role as Zibby, disappointing after a short career that so far had shown her to be such a tremendous actress.
There's an attempt to embrace the ethos of the liberal arts (literature, politics, philosophy) in a hipsterish, modern way whereby the characters walk around with David Foster Wallace’s 'Infinite Jest' underarm, or a near unwatchable scene when Radnor is listening to Wagner in central Brooklyn as the camera circles him. These elements on their own would be acceptable if there was more thought put into the story but instead the result is a half-baked job where the story becomes one tiresome cliché after another.
Despite its problems with the handling of the theme and the stale writing there are moments when Liberal Arts shines. Richard Jenkin’s subplot of a man who's finding it hard coming to terms with retirement is the story that audiences will actually want to see yet it’s screen time is minimal. The same goes for the more intriguing story of depressed student Dean, performed in a suitably maudlin manner by John Magaro (The Brave One). But sadly we're left with the confused love affair of a man too young to be having a midlife crisis. It's all cheap existentialism that lacks enough wit or charm to please. Although, there is a fun jab at the expense of the Twilight novels that will manage to crack a smile when Radnor describes it as “the worst book ever written.”
At best Liberal Arts is a comfort food flick masquerading as fine cuisine, which provides just enough junk to please.
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