'Liberal Arts' Yields Mediocre Marks
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A syllabus of smart ideas rather than a persuasive life-changing journey, Josh Radnor's "Liberal Arts" is another in a long line of recent cinematic Bildungsroman. That fancy literary handle describes stories about sensitive souls, usually a young man, coming of age -- or trying to -- courtesy of eye-opening and/or mind-blowing experiences. Hollywood and indie helmers alike continue to be hot for a particular big-screen variant of this genre: movies about not-so-young Peter Pans stuck in something like permanent adolescence, dudes still struggling to make it over the hump into adulthood. (Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd, endearing poster boys for arrested development, are still working the growing-up meme in December's "This Is 40.")
As the old doo-wop ditty warns, growing up is hard to do, so boyos from Holden Caulfield to James Dean's rebel without a cause rarely have an easy ride into maturity. But don't look for anything disturbing or even majorly eye-opening in "Liberal Arts," Radnor's second effort as writer-director-actor (he's also familiar from TV's "How I Met Your Mother").
Brainy (MFA, Tisch School of the Arts), pop-culturally canny (he played Benjamin Braddock on Broadway) and good-hearted (no matter how disillusioned, even suicidal, his characters are, they don't cast dark shadows or skew mean), Radnor paints movies in shades of sitcom pastel. In sharp contrast to the acid bath that was "The Graduate," his "Liberal Arts" is a soft-focus view of how painless growing up affluent and self-absorbed in today's America can be. (His debut film, "happythankyoumoreplease," tackled similar subject matter.)
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old singleton New Yorker dead-ended in a boring job as college admissions advisor. Indie-ironic, of course, since "Liberal Arts" chronicles Jesse's attempt to return to college life. By tapping into a past when he was a hopeful boychik luxuriating in the warm embrace of his alma mater, our nice-guy hero actually manages to grow up a tad despite his old prof's wise warning that "no one ever really feels like an adult."
Returning to Ohio's Kenyon College (Radnor's own alma mater) to speak at a retirement dinner for that beloved professor (Richard Jenkins), Jesse savors academia's autumnal pathways and its heady climate of challenging talk and learning -- it's Eden compared to his 9-to-5 rat race in Manhattan! And then there's Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a radiant sophomore who introduces him to theatrical improv and Beethoven. Zibby's his dewy Eve, but it's aloof, sexy Judith Fairchild (Allison Janney), Jesse's favorite English teacher, who tempts him to bite into her deliciously sour fruit of knowledge.
Jesse's interactions with this collegiate trio are less like actual relationships with living, breathing folk than a series of courses in Growing Up 101. Here's the aging teacher, so eager to retire, who suddenly realizes the nothingness that is his life without work. How can he get back to the time when classes gave the day shape and meaning? Fairchild -- so ironically named! -- once ravished Jesse with the glories of Romantic poetry; fulfilling his fantasy of undergraduate lust, Jesse encounters the antithesis of poetry, a scorpion-tongued realist long past any faith in truth or beauty.
Probably because Olsen is so irresistible, the relationship with lovely Zibby comes closest to real feeling, especially when their romance plays out in old-fashioned epistolary style. This smart, imaginative 19-year-old yearns to grow, larger and up. For Jesse, she looks like a way back to the future, to a better, brighter self.
Did I mention that Jesse hooks up with a manic-depressive genius (John Magaro) so lost he's decided to off himself? Or that our middle-aged Candide keeps encountering an annoying hippie (Zac Efron) who affects a colorful South American cap with ear flaps and dispenses silly stoner wisdom? Neither one is a fleshed-out character, just an exotic flavor in Radnor's existential smorgasbord. Scratch that simile -- this movie's more like an Automat of compartmentalized options for Jesse's sampling pleasure during his second foray into the liberal arts.
Seems like a contemporary Bildungsroman, an authentic journey into man- or womanhood, should have some sharp edges, even if it's an uncertain mix of comedy and drama. Shouldn't constructing character cost something, even hurt a bit, as cherished but anachronistic aspects of personality are cut away to make room for new growth? "Liberal Arts" is so sweet and safe an undertaking, it's like getting baptized in warm bathwater.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.