Tuesday 9 October 2012
(Josh Radnor, 2012) Combining two distinct sub-genres of the romantic comedy: the "manic pixie dream girl" movie and the "stunted manchild is forced to find a new maturity through trauma" movie into a single entity, Liberal Arts is something of an odd beast. Its not really a romcom, in fact it's barely a comedy at all. For much of its running time it's a likeable romantic drama with a few obvious comic elements, such as Zac Efron's barefoot new age guru, dispensing wisdom and anecdotes to writer-director-star Josh Radnor's sensitive lead Jesse. Jesse, a thirtysomething graduate working in admissions at a Manhattan College, is tired of his lonely, book-filled life, and he returns to his old College campus in Ohio for his favourite Professor's (Richard Jenkins, who gets a couple of great scenes of quiet regret) retirement dinner, where he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) an 'advanced' 19-year old student. There is an immediate spark between them - signalled by their thoughtful expressions and off-key wit - which develops and deepens after they exchange precious, oh-so-sensitive letters about classical music, the beauty of the city and their states of mind. She invites him to return, and then things get really complicated. Radnor's film strains a little too hard for cinematic poetry, but its at its best when it stays modest, revealing a few of the simple truths of the disappointments and compromises of life in ones thirties. Its also a nice portrayal of bibliophilia; Jesse reads books constantly, as he walks in the street, and he and Zibby have their first real fight about her liking of a series of unnamed vampire novels and his snobbish dismissal of them. Olsen is charming and attractive in a role which could have been extremely grating, and Radnor is a likeable lead. A surprisingly strong parallel strand in the narrative has him counsel a depressive student he randomly meets in a coffee shop, and the film has a nice, believable ending. It is a small film with small pleasures, nice performances and a few small flaws.