Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards

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