by Ian BrockwayLiberal Arts
The tepidly titled "Liberal Arts" is a new film written and directed by actor Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother). The film stars Radnor himself as Jessie, an admissions worker at a New York City college (name unspecified). Jessie gets a call out of the blue from his beloved anarchist teacher, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) and begins to get school-sick like a pining lover. This is one of the few Indie Rom-Coms that I have seen that romanticizes academic life. Once Jessie arrives at his profs house, he meets the waif-like and idealistic Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) who has skin like poured heavy cream and ice-blue eyes.
Jessie becomes platonically smitten.
Josh Radnor is clearly the star of the film, he possesses a quirky staccato charm and has a way of making his neurotically absurdist dialogue feel spontaneous. Radnor has a twinkling sincerity and like Woody Allen before him, has a way of making romantic struggle slapstick, poetic and compelling.
In his black beard and sensitive eyes, he is a bit like a young Tony Roberts. And just when you might think he is insufferable with his endless philosophy, Jessie does something unexpectedly irreverent to pull us back in.
It is Radnor himself who is the prime mover of the story in his pensive romanticism for his old college days and by extension, printed novels. Richard Jenkins is as low-key and as metaphysically downbeat as ever, which is no great stretch for his repertoire. Of course, we expect him to be a gentle curmudgeon and with some subtle iconoclasm. Yet like an argentine bohemian dragon, Jenkins has a way of making old protests comforting and still authentic.
Elizabeth Olsen, too, is fine here although not very enticing. Sure, She is warm vulnerable, empathetic and all things that go gushy in an Ivy Leagued night but so many other wide-eyed ingenues have spilled ink and trailed tears before her.
Her Zibby is a person we expect.
The best surprises in "Liberal Arts" come with the appearances of its minor characters. Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney) is a refreshing surprise as a crude Romantic Literature instructor who has a mouth like Lenny Bruce and is fond giving the middle finger without remorse. Radnor and Janney have an exchange together involving impromptu sex that will give you more than a few chuckles. Then there is the flaky stoner Nat (played with such goofy, earnest energy by Zac Efron) who still has me giggling.
But like an oft-recited syllabus, "Liberal Arts" follows the romantic playbook: bookish guy finds girl, bookish guy insults girl through misunderstandings, sensitive guy finds himself.
All I was hoping for was a little extra credit, given the Indie reputation of Radnor. Finally, although the story is a bit matter of course, the role of Jessie has a shaky joie de vivre (almost as if Ferris Bueller is suddenly a father) which makes the film a solid, if mostly singular, entertainment.
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