If I needed any more assurance that academia is a tar pit I’m lucky to have escaped — the greatest engine of arrested development our society has ever created — I would need look no further than Josh Radnor’s sophomore effort as writer and director, Liberal Arts. It’s smart and sweet, and maybe just a bit too full of itself — a familiar charge when Radnor is around.
Jesse (Radnor) is a semi-self-consciously bookish guy in his mid-thirties. A graduate of an Ohio liberal arts college, he now lives in New York City, where he finds himself yet again single. As one character puts it, he is an “effete, overliterate man-boy”; basically, every character Radnor ever plays. This is not really a complaint, mind you; by repetition he’s mastered a form that’s at least more interesting than that of most one-trick actors.
Anyway, he’s working as an admissions officer for an unspecified college in the city — still unable to leave the academic world. When Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), a favorite professor of his from back at his Ohio liberal arts alma mater, is set to retire, he jumps at the chance to return and attend the reception. And while there he meets three current students: the stoner, Nat (Zac Efron); the manic-depressive, Dean (John Magaro); and the girl, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen).
Most of the story focuses on Zibby, who quickly develops a crush on Jesse. And he, in turn, feels an affection for her. And, really, it’s hard to blame him. After blowing a decade of my own in academia I know full well how it warps your perceptions. And on some level I must admit that some attention from a smart, mature college student doesn’t sound too bad. But as smart and mature as she is, she’s still a college student, and she’s in a very different place.
It’s a pleasure to see Olsen in a real leading part outside of horror films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House — Peace, Love & Misunderstanding didn’t give her much to work with. Her character here is a real departure, and the naturality of her performance — not to mention her perfectly-balanced tension against Radnor — goes to prove her talent. A bigger surprise, though, is Efron, who plays Nat like no role I’ve ever seen him in before.
While Jesse’s interactions with the kids help illustrate his stunted emotional growth, it’s the professors — Hoberg and Fairfield (Allison Janney) — that show where the road leads. Hoberg panics outside the ivory tower’s walls, like a long-time inmate who can’t deal with regular life after his parole. And as for Fairfield, if only her response after decades of this life were more of a joke than it is.
Dean’s story, though, doesn’t quite add the edge it seems to try for. It’s sort of a disappointment, since it contains numerous references to David Foster Wallace, whose famous commencement speech, This Is Water, was delivered at Kenyon, where the film was shot. The script gropes blindly to come up with some depth here, and it doesn’t come up with much. Ah, but a director’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a film festival for?
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.