Title: LIBERAL ARTS
Director: Josh Radnor
Screenwriter: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Allison Janney, Richard Jenkins
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 8/15/12
Opens: September 14, 2012
Here is an existential truth about our species: When we’re young, we want things speeded up, to put school behind us, to get with the real world. When we’re old we want things not just to stop but we’d like to turn back the clock. This axiom gets widespread exposure, both funny and poignant, in a terrific movie written, directed, and starring Josh Radnor—best known as Ted in the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” Radnor, whose “Happythankyoumoreplease” deals with a similar theme—young people on the cusp of adulthood who wonder how to love and be loved—is a man of significant comic talent, which he shows in “Liberal Arts” where he occupies almost every frame of the movie and as its actor/writer-director.
The quote “He who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” points to the theme that is central to the Book of Ecclesiastis (which novelist Thomas Wolfe called the greatest piece of writing ever given to humankind.). This film, which makes ironic fodder of the idea that all our problems with be solved if we master the liberal arts, proceeds to a series of interviews that Jesse (Josh Radnor) is conducting in the New York office of Kenyon College in rural Ohio. Radnor the writer wants us to realize that his character is like Peter Pan, not moving forward, not growing up, and not particularly realizing that this is his problem. When he is invited to attend the retirement dinner of Peter (Richard Jenkins), his “second-favorite professor,” he heads to Ohio where two of Peter’s friends introduce him to their daughter, Elizabeth, or Zibby (Elziabeth Olsen), a student at the college who is immediately attracted to Jesse—as is everyone else that Jesse meets. Sitting through an embarrassing speech by Peter—who we find out later wants to turn the clock back (he’d old, remember?) and get back his job—Jesse runs into people on campus, a diverse lot indeed. Nat (Zac Efron) is a goofy guy in a Peruvian ski hat, not a student but a free spirit who delivers his own kooky words of non-wisdom to Jesse while Dean (John Magaro), is an avid reader who is depressed to the point of suicide. Judith (Allison Janney) turns up as his favorite professor, whose course on British poetry allegedly opened him up. She hits on him to interesting effect.
No-one impresses Jesse like Zibby, who gives him a CD of classical music (in one scene we watch the New York skyline against a background of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony), and comes on to him to his mixed feelings because he is sixteen years older than she. In one comic scene he figures out that when he was 19, she was 3 and when he was 16, she was 0. They agree to write to each other in longhand, an epistolary romance that makes us wonder whether these two folks will get together again despite their age difference.
Though for my money Zac Efron’s character could have been left on the metaphoric cutting room floor and perhaps ditto that of John Magaro, “Liberal Arts” powerfully and with comic undertones delivers the message that you can’t go home again. Jesse will have to give up the pull of the past: even he admits that strolling about the campus does not feel much as it did when he was Zibby’s age. As for Josh Radnor, here is a real talent who goes about his business with a permanent air of bemusement, wondering why so many people of diverse ages are treating him like a rock star. That he wrote this incisive script which eschews sit-comish laugh lines in favor of more authentic humor, and that he directs the whole business, should place him on an A-list of performers to seek out.
Rated R. 97 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-