Directed by: Josh Radnor; Runtime: 97 minutes
While reviewing Josh Radnor's mouthful of a freshman feature, happythankyoumoreplease, I described it as a dramedy that "carries the best of intentions while showing courtesy to the anxiety that accompanies shifting between life's stages". This theme has clearly sunk its claws into the director, because his latest film, the much more manageably-titled Liberal Arts, touches on similar observations while taking a guy back to his college years after being "out there": a degree of anxiety over reluctant maturation; a desire to experience the joys of the past; confusion over which path(s) to take into the future; and, of course, what a relationship looks like in his older years. The difference between Radnor's pair of growing-up portraits lies in the concise, emotionally relaxed focus that drives Liberal Arts, an earnest and occasionally amusing play on a stunted thirty-something's desire for clarity and rejuvenation.
Again shouldering the responsibility as writer and director, The How I Met Your Mother actor funnels personal authenticity into his subject, a conflicted mid-30s higher-ed admissions advisor named Jesse, by also putting himself in the spotlight as the lead. There's both bravery and honesty behind him doing so, mixed with a little internal fantasy: after receiving a call from a favorite college professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend his retirement dinner, Jesse goes back to his alma-mater and, while there, meets a confident, abnormal undergrad student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who's fascinated with books, improv, and things from the past. Through coffee shops and cramped dorm rooms, the two form a bond that transcends their age and place in life, where Zibby reintroduces Jesse to the learning and awakening that accompanies a liberal arts college experience. That experience, and Zibby herself as a kindred spirit, seems to be exactly what he needed; however, when their link turns more intimate, they're forced to deal with their difference in life experience.
Alongside the comedic romance mannerisms built around Jesse and Zibby's meet-in-the-middle maturity, Liberal Arts focuses on discovering and rediscovering that spark some people lose when they're boxed into modern adulthood and find comfort in their own heads (or books). That awakening of sorts becomes one of Radnor's key strengths when telling Jesse's story; he discovers music of years past, reads books he thought he'd never read, and becomes more attuned to the beauty of the world around him, reminiscent of what some students experience (or wish they'd had) while roaming the halls of college. With that, though, also comes an interesting outlook on an idea recently explored by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris: "golden age thinking", or that things -- art, music, people, ways of living -- were better in a simpler, more deeply-felt time. Jesse and Zibby might be guilty of that, getting lost in old music and handwritten letters, but does it matter if they've found kindred spirits in one another?
Radnor's reflection really only serves an outward purpose, though, enough to enhance the blossoming relationship between Jesse and Zibby, but it makes the age-defying romance feel somewhat distinctive as they meld minds over classical music and literature. Part of that lies in the chemistry between Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen, where his inherent hangdog charisma tugs-'n-pulls with her assertiveness and barefaced wisdom. They're an enjoyable pair to watch in the college environment, if a bit reliant on their natural personas; while it's expected for Jesse to be something of a man-child, especially considering the underdeveloped emotional state of Radnor's protagonists (both those he's written and whom he plays elsewhere), his stunted temper communicates well with the way Olsen gives Zibby a forward-thinking energy. Jesse's interaction with others around his college campus also creates a cluttered but enriching mosaic that informs his growth: he befriends a bipolar literature wiz (John Magaro), rubs elbows with a philosophical hippy (Zac Efron), and even trades glances with the romantics professor (Allison Janney) who ignited his passion for literature.
Despite its earnestness, Liberal Arts constantly fights against the déjà vu nature of its relatively by-the-numbers journey through Jesse's "awakening" and internal dilemmas -- another tweaked, not-so-humorous take on Garden State's formula about breaking barriers and defeating adulthood's tedium, largely sparked by a girl who comes severely close to "manic pixie dream girl" territory. Radnor shows comfort in this emotional wheelhouse, as if he's creating a direct line to his own train of thought about pushing through the barriers of growing up, which could've easily surrendered to a thirty-something's wish fulfillment and easy emotional catharsis. But it doesn't, and that's what elevates his sophomore film: Liberal Arts shifts gears and takes an unexpected route towards sincere self-discovery at a crucial point. This doesn't make it great, but couple that with leads wearing their roles like comfortable blankets and you've got a small, well-felt expression of maturity that's worth some consideration.
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