(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on September 21, 2012.)
Liberal Arts shows us that our youth (and youthfulness) is slipping fast through our grasping fingers, no matter how hard a grip we may exert. Time and its pressures are a constant wear on the psyche and the soul, and yet we brace against the inevitable by reverting to a former mind-state or reveling in arrested development. Throughout it all, the world continues to turn, with no heed paid to our battle against time. As much as we want to hold on to those fleeting moments of perfection and idealism, they’re not ours to hold permanently; they must be passed and given away.
Throughout much of Liberal Arts, we see the characters grabbing at whatever vestiges remain of their notions of life as they know it; whether it’s maintaining an unsullied view of literature or one’s own sense of self, we see that no one has what they want. Jesse (Radnor) is a college admissions counselor trapped in a moribund routine; between his college interviews, he is so busy reading books about life that he forgets to actually live. While returning to his alma mater to see the retirement of his favorite professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he encounters a girl who ignites a flame in his humdrum life: Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore whose “the answer is always ‘yes’” approach to everything captivates Jesse. Hoberg, once certain of his retirement, starts to question the need to quit so early. Jesse also runs into Professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), whose literature class inspired him to love and live for the ideals espoused in her teachings; he also meets Dean (John Magaro), a chemically-managed, misunderstood misanthrope who shares a love for books as well.
Radnor has graciously kept his character count small, as opposed to the larger casts we’re used to seeing in university-based comedies. By doing this, we’re provided a lot more depth to each character into which we can sink ourselves and enjoy. There’s one character and performer I’m loath to discuss, as I couldn’t remember seeing his name in the opening credits; his presence and his role in the film were a genuine surprise, and I feel like talking about him is to ruin one of this film’s treasures. The world of Liberal Arts is simple, with all of the characters being the antithesis of every stereotype we know from these movies.
Liberal Arts can be defined as a comedy, but it’s more in line with looking at a gentle slice of life. There’s nothing ostentatious or outrageous about this movie; think more Norman Rockwell than National Lampoon. The photography by Seamus Tierney highlights the lush, warm settings of Ohio’s Kenyon College, using that to contrast Jesse’s concrete-and-steel life in New York City. Radnor is keeping the low-key approach of his first film, happythankyoumoreplease, maintaining a slow, even hand at the helm and gleaning eager, perfectly nuanced performances out of all his actors. There’s no need for hysterics or frat-boy antics in this college movie; instead, it’s more of a focus on youth and how much even an age separation of 16 years between Jesse and Zibby can affect one’s outlook. Consider Liberal Arts to be required viewing for Life 101.