Writer/director/star Josh Radnor proves that student life is best left to students in this tediously sincere literary love-in.
Liberal Arts is a film head over heels in love with the written word. Its characters spend their days perusing the aisles of antique bookshops, comparing notes on David Foster Wallace and penning handwritten letters about the joys of penning handwritten letters.
They converse in a language of hyperbolic literary references, like unusually well-read Judd Apatow characters whose cultural touchstones have finally advanced beyond Trading Places. They despair over the continued popularity of reality television, are mystified by the success of the Twilight novels and would presumably be sent spiralling into anaphylactic shock by the mere sight of an Amazon Kindle.
Chastising television seems a little ripe for a film like Liberal Arts, especially as its writer/ director/star, Josh Radnor, made his name as the titular ‘I’ of hit sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. Here, he plays thirtysomething admissions officer Jesse Fisher, whose comfortable Manhattan existence is undermined only by the sneaking suspicion that he peaked in college and has been going downhill ever since.
And so an invitation to the leaving dinner of a cherished ex-professor (Richard Jenkins) is all that’s required to tempt Jesse back to his Ohio alma mater for one last dose of student life. There he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an English lit major 16 years his junior, and the walking embodiment of everything he’s so eager to recapture. Zibby’s myriad obsessions – her love of classical music, her passion for improvisational theatre (the list goes on) – soon coax Jesse out of his shell, and before long he’s wrestling with the ethical implications of dating a teenager.
But having failed to establish any real emotional connection between the pair, the film’s tediously sincere musings on the nature of ageing also prove unconvincing and trite: some people grow up too quickly; some don’t grow up at all; some become bitter and cynical in their old age; some discover a new sense of purpose.
There’s no denying the good intentions of Jesse and – by extension – the film as a whole. Yet Liberal Arts’ commitment to bland inoffensiveness is its undoing. Even Radnor’s physical resemblance to heinous US shock comic Dane Cook serves only as a reminder of his inability to provoke reactions even half as strong as those elicited by his obnoxious doppelgänger.
Instead, he limps through the movie in a state of semi-torpor, only coming to life when relaying the transcendent experience he finds so readily in literature. If his intention was to make books cool again, Radnor succeeds. But only by making cinema boring.
An arthouse Never Been Kissed. Tell us more.
Okay, we’ve heard enough.
You’d do well to take the film’s advice: read a book instead.