Liberal Arts – Review

November 6, 2012 2:00 pm

It is something to admire when an established sitcom actor breaks away from his day job, to create a quirky, indie rom-com that becomes the darling of festival circuits. Liberal Arts is a fun, touching and brilliantly scripted gem about a young man travelling back to his roots, on a venture of cathartic self-discovery. At least, that is what I would be saying if Zach Braff hadn’t done the same thing eight years ago with Garden State. Thematically, they are almost identical, but Radnor’s output shows how underrated Garden State really was.

Liberal Arts sees Jesse Fisher (aka Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother) living the life of a College admissions advisor, spending his days mostly reading piles of books at a time, whilst attempting to maintain sanity in an unfulfilling job. When his old college professor (Richard Jenkins) invites Jesse to be his guest at his own retirement party, he takes it as an excuse to escape the monotony of his job and revisit his past days as an undergraduate. Back on campus he meets a young student Zibby who he has much in common with, and from this point out the pair share something of an intellectual relationship which strives to be romantic; Jesse struggling to deal with their eighteen year age difference.

via The Guardian

The film follows a rather conventional narrative and whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, its cliches begin to far outweigh any originality or inventiveness. Like Garden State, Radnor surrounds his couple with an ensemble of supporting characters, many of whom play their parts brilliantly. Jenkins, as he seems to be proving frequently, is a definite standout, as well as Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby, who continues her standard of dramatic performance seen in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (Durkin, 2011). Others, however, just feel confusing and irritatingly unoriginal. Zac Efron’s stoner/mystic simply disrupts any connection to the film its audiences may have, seemingly plucked straight out of a Judd Apatow comedy but without the humour. Similarly, the assumedly suicidal, struggling artist-type Dean (John Magaro), whom Jesse feels a connection to, is nothing more than a teenage trope wrapped in a narrative device, serving only to highlight plot holes rather than any actual meaning.

Ultimately, its pride in its own intelligence (unashamedly influenced by the likes of Woody Allen but lacking in similar substance) becomes its own worst enemy. A major plot point comes with a disagreement over the quality of an unnamed, popular teenage vampire franchise, perhaps one of the worst second act turning points in recent memory. Similarly, some elements of plot, most notably those regarding ‘high-culture’, simply come across as forced. Whilst Jesse learns a valuable life lesson having re-evaluated his naive youth, learning to cope with age and consequence, Liberal Arts seems to learn nothing from its own pretensions regarding the experience of life, other than to bask in the cliched lights of a world it glorifies…but for whatever reason, can’t capture authentically.

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