Featuring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Alison Janney, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser, Michael Weston
Director: Josh Radnor
Writer: Josh Radnor
Australian release date: Thursday 13th December
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: refreshing)
When newly single New York-based 38-year-old Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is invited back to his alma mater in Ohio to speak at the retirement dinner of his favourite professor (Richard Jenkins), re-visiting the campus grounds of his youth fans the flames of his nostalgia for his college days. During his stay, he meets precocious 19-year-old sophomore student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). There is an instant attraction between them, and when Jesse returns to New York they continue a correspondence by letter. Through Zibby he discovers a love for classical music, and the long-dormant vitality of his younger self is activated. He rationalises away the significance of their age difference and returns to Ohio to see her, but the visit yields unpredictable and profound results.
OK, let’s get this out of the way: this is a romcom. But override that reflex fingers-down-the-throat reaction!
Liberal Arts is a welcome departure from the predictable formulaic Hollywood dross typical of this genre. In fact, for those idealistic and foolish folk who elected to do an arts degree (I confess), and even more foolishly and romantically expected something at the end of it of more practical use than a bit o fancy embossed paper suitable for framing but nothing more, this is a must-see. If, on the other hand, you went the sensible path and selected a course that qualified you as immediately employable at graduation, some of the choicest moments may not hit the spot quite as sweetly.
See, there is a strong sense of the personal yet universal about the movie, a grappling on the part of screenwriter/director/lead actor Josh Radnor to resolve some contradictory sentiments and attitudes concerning his art student days; it’s a struggle with which most ex-arts students will readily identify.
What happens to campus dreams, to the poetry, the novel of the future, that wither on the vine as the existentialist nightmare of killing routine and life’s dreary realities leach the psyche of creative nutrient? Were these dreams always unrealizable, mere youthful delusion? Or does something happen, some snuffing out of the noble flame, when graduation ejects you from the safe harbour of campus life, and the temporary support system of those intense and hopeful years is withdrawn for good?
From the distance of years of mundane adult life, does nostalgic yearning illuminate the uni daze of youth with an unreal glow? Do we remember the good stuff, and relegate the rest to insignificance?
This is material rich with the possibility of bitter-sweet humour, which Radnor mines with wit and intelligence. My favourite part of the film is a bedroom encounter between Jesse and one of his old lecturers in romantic poetry, Professor Judith Fairfield (played with relish by Allison Janney), an emasculating bully of a woman of terrifying intellect and rapier wit (there was one such creature on my campus, and I have no doubt this is true of every uni everywhere – it comes with the territory). Radnor wreaks belated vengeance in characterising the nutcracker Prof as drained of humanity, world-weary, cynical and iconoclastic beyond measure, even to the point of yawningly dismissing the great romantic poets as bores who through mere persistence and a talent for writing had turned “a few moments of transcendence” into literary careers. It’s a bloody hilarious interlude, and there is considerable vicarious pleasure in Radnor’s triumphant cathartic slaying of this dragon of his past (and mine) – I have no doubt that this is what is going on here.
The development of the romance between Jesse and Zibby is well-managed and convincing, assisted by good performances from Elizabeth Olsen and Radnor – and mercifully, deviates from the expected trajectory.
Richard Jenkins is as great as ever in his relatively minor role as a professor who not long into retirement seeks to turn back the clock and have himself reinstated by the college board, while Zac Efron charms as a whacko solitary mystic vagabond who hangs around campus at night, dispensing words of wisdom and prophesy to the faltering Jesse like a renegade bohemian guardian angel. Sounds dippy, and it is, but somehow the character works in the context of the story.
As the end approaches, the narrative moves uncomfortably close to the saccharine, but the pilot corrects before too much damage is done.
This is a feel-good movie of substance, funny, astute and…ah, bugger it, moving! Yep, it got to me, and because of the quality of the screenplay and performances, I don’t mind admitting it. A romcom you can enjoy without guilt or a lobotomy – that’s refreshing.
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