DVD Release Date: December 18, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 14, 2012 limited; wider in October
Rating: PG-13 for some language, sexual situations, and smoking.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Run Time: 97 min.
Director: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro

In 2004, Scrubs sitcom star Zach Braff made his debut as a writer/director with the indie hit Garden State, a seminal film for its generation (if not for anyone else). Though it may not have marked the birth of hipster cinema, it certainly defined it with more mainstream sensibilities than Wes Anderson’s artsy eccentricities did.

Nearly a decade later, sitcom star Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) is attempting to go one step further than Braff by actually making a second feature. Radnor’s debut came in 2010 with Happythankyoumoreplease, which he both wrote and starred in, mining a similar territory and style to Braff’s more effective and resonate predecessor. Now Radnor pulls triple-hyphenate duties again as writer, director and star of Liberal Arts, an effort so indie-formulaic it falls quickly into cliché. Still, it’s a film as easy to like as it is to pick apart.

It opens with a bit of pretense, quoting a Scripture verse (Ecclesiastes 1:18) with more to ponder than anything that follows in the movie that cites it. Radnor plays Jesse Fisher, a college admissions counselor who finds his job unchallenging and his romantic relationship ending. When he visits his alma mater for a professor’s retirement party, Jesse meets new freshman student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene). Despite the 16-year age gap, it’s clear rather quickly that their young-and-not-so-young love will serve as the story’s primary arc.

As a writer, Radnor has a lot to say. Oh, it’s all been said before (see Ecclesiastes 1:9 again), and he never finds a fresh way to say any of it, but deep thoughts are pondered and heartfelt feelings expressed. It’s all fairly pedestrian and boilerplate. Despite being from the Ironic Generation, Radnor fails to see the irony in his 35-year-old character still struggling with college-age anxieties.

Occasionally clever or insightful one-liners aside, we’ve seen this “Loveable Sadsack Meets Free Spirit” indie romancer before. Jesse needs to get out of his funk, Zibby comes along to accomplish that, and along the way they share their feelings, fears, earnest desires and odd observations. Sure, he’s awkward and doesn’t know how to talk to her, but lucky for him she finds this endearing. When he writes (yes, by hand) letters to her, however, his inner poet blooms! Oh how he writes – so articulate, witty, contemplative and assured.

While Radnor strikes a pleasant enough tone to make the proceedings enjoyable, the construct feels a bit tired and, to be blunt, insulting to women – especially with the overdone Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) archetype that Zibby fits to a “T,” right down to her contrived name. An MPDG is not so much a character as a catalyst, present solely to reignite love, life, passion and purpose into the mopey male protagonist. 

An MPDG is, in short, a male indie filmmaker’s fantasy. He’s too shy and scared to make a move on the vivacious beauty but, no worries, because the MPDG leads every step of the way. Each time the relationship goes to the next level, it’s because she’s the one saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done. Conversations with her range from cultured to cutesy while taking sudden shifts to affectionate expression. In a man’s MPDG fantasy, being awkward and shy is exclusively adorable. A lack of confidence is not a turn-off, but appealing. All the male must do is thank his lucky stars as the MPDG all-but throws herself at him. Eventually in this story she even does that.

The fantasy may have its appeal but it’s also becoming pathetic. Jesse’s former poetry professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney, The Help) tells him as much in a very pointed rant when she says, "All these effete over-articulate manboys who never learn to toughen up – don’t be one of them. Go work with your hands. Build something. Punch someone in the face." Admonition to violence aside, it’s the best advice Jesse gets. Unfortunately the film views Judith as cold and heartless, so the one bit of guidance Jesse should heed is summarily dismissed as the bitterness of an aging spinster.

Fortunately the film’s greatest strength is Olsen’s performance as Zibby. She elevates every conventional trait of the MPDG with a spontaneity, sincerity, and complexity not inherent to the archetype. As Jesse, Radnor’s sitcom roots peek through in the way he plays the material. To his credit, his acting is more underplayed than on TV, and his natural awe-shucks charisma makes up for a lot.

Most supporting characters in Liberal Arts exist to fill a purpose rather than be people. Nat (Zac Efron, The Lucky One) is a caricatured stoner who pops up to elicit laughs or provide Jesse an enlightening metaphor. Dean (John Magaro, The Life Before Her Eyes) is simply a younger version of Jesse who Jesse can cathartically mentor. Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga) has the most thankless role of all as a librarian who pines for Jesse as he remains oblivious to her affections.

It’s the two vets, Janney and Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers) as Professor Hoberg that stand out (along with Olsen). Hoberg adds a particularly interesting element: for as little of a catalyst as he is for Jesse, a good deal of time is spent with him and his own personal trial. Jenkins’ performance is so rich and the arc so well-conceived that Hoberg almost feels like a character from a different movie (one that Radnor would do well to try his hand at in order to stretch himself as a filmmaker).

As indies go, Liberal Arts is a softball right down the middle. For all the nitpicks, it’s saved by an undeniable charm. Calling a movie "casually comfortable" may sound like a backhanded compliment – and to be honest, it is – but it’s a sincere one.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Two instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. One use of the “D” word slang for a man’s genitals, as well as the “P” word for a woman’s.
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: A little bit of casual drinking but no drunkenness. A woman smokes in one scene.
  • Sex/Nudity: Brief passionate kissing. Talk of possibly having sex. A student talks about wanting to lose her virginity. The sound of a woman achieving orgasm. A couple talks after having had sex.

Publication date: September 14, 2012