Directed by Josh Radnor. Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton. (2012, NR, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 28, 2012
It’s certainly Josh Radnor’s prerogative – as indie dramedy Liberal Arts’ writer-director-producer-star – to train the camera on whomever he chooses. But the trouble with having so many hyphens appended to one man is that it reduces the number of people around with a little perspective and the nerve to point out that he’s fashioned a whole movie around the least interesting person in the story.
Familiar to TV watchers as the puppyish Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, Radnor stars as Jesse Fisher, a college admissions officer and drifting Manhattanite who returns to his old alma mater, a liberal arts college in bucolic Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Jenkins). While there, Jesse hits it off with a charismatic undergraduate named Zibby (Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s breakout), who doesn’t appear put off by their 15-year age gap, or his mush-mouth melancholic funk, or the fact that he seems bewildered by the language and mores of college-aged kids, even as he makes a living counseling them.
Liberal Arts is not unlikable: There are some intelligent observations about how humans woo, and the film is so suffused with sincerity you want to give it a pat on the head just for trying so hard. But, my god, how it rankles. Love of literature – and the limitations of that one-way love when it comes to keeping warm at night – is a major consideration of the film, but Liberal Arts confuses name-checking William Blake with a compelling expression of ardor. (Also: If Radnor didn’t want to date his film by calling out Twilight and Infinite Jest by name, then he shouldn’t have made major points out of both books – coyly talking around them is just as bad.) First-rate character actors like Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney have been misdirected into too-broad performances; Zac Efron, as a hippie mystic, is so awful the cheeks burn for him; and any frame of film not filled with Olsen is a wasted opportunity. “Radiant” doesn’t even cut it. No kidding: She’s blind-your-eyes luminous. It’s Zibby’s coming of age – not Jesse’s dithering 30s – that perks the ears. But Radnor imagines Zibby solely as a contrapuntal construct, most cruelly when he walks her up to the edge of a life landmark, only to cut away. That fatal incuriosity about any character not played by him makes a sideshow out of the film’s main attraction.