Liberal Arts, a movie about a well-off, well-educated guy, avoids the pitfall of making too much out of the problems of well-off, well-educated people by making a point so simple it actually seems daring: life is pretty good for said people and they have very little cause to ask others for sympathy for their plight. Of course, everybody has a right to lay bare their experience on film, and no one’s life is any less real than anyone else’s. What How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor, the writer/direct/star of this movie, seems to understand is, though the above is true, it doesn’t mean you have to break your back by trying to force people to care. It’s fairly absurd to ask people to show much concern for a character, like Radnor’s Jesse, who enjoys a cushy desk job at a university, maintains a comfy-luxurious apartment, and whose biggest problem is a vague sense of ennui stemming from his desire — and ability — to do nothing more in life than soak up literature. This isn’t the stuff of profound human drama, but in Radnor’s self-aware and remarkably confident hands, Liberal Arts properly and sincerely conveys the experience of such a person while avoiding the execrable tendency to whine. All of which makes it a pretty alright film.
Early on Jesse is roused from his book-reading existence by an old professor, played by Richard Jenkins, who invites him to a retirement party at the nameless, spacious, highly-regarded Ohio university he once attended. Jesse makes the trip, and while reliving his glory days in school he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old acting student passionately hopeful that the liberal arts education in which she’s reveling will make the rest of her life magical. To Jesse’s simultaneous happiness and discomfort, she takes a big shine to him, one mostly predicated on the idea that such a well-read and interesting graduate as him must have achieved exactly the future she’s hoping for.
Zibby is, predictably, in for a dose of reality. But, like most of the film, her hopes and neuroses and her relationship with Jesse are more deeply rendered than you might guess if you were to merely hear a description of them. Much of the credit for this has to go to Elizabeth Olsen, who is seemingly incapable of conveying anything other than an authentic, well-rounded woman (she’s saddled with unavoidable comparisons to her billionaire-actress sisters and their anorexic-chic personae, but her talent is enough to set her apart). But Radnor, in simply making a problems-of-well-educated-people movie that isn’t histrionic or complaining, does his part too. He has a refreshingly sober, even self-mocking, take on state of the over-educated urban professional. A particularly touching sequence in which Jesse and Zibby exchange cross-country letters relating their shared love of classical music might be excruciatingly banal in another movie, but it registers as honest in this one. Radnor fully accepts the silliness of a New Yorker drifting through the city smiling at everyone because he’s drunk on Schubert, and the sequence is shot so lovingly that you can’t help getting a bit drunk on it yourself.
Ironically for a movie that gains points for having a humble sense of humor, Liberal Arts’s biggest problem is that it could stand to take Jesse’s life a bit more seriously, or at the very least come up with something unarguably trying for him to deal with. All in all, the movie swings too far onto the light side. The emotional pitch of the relationship between Jesse and Zibby never drifts into anything like life-changing territory; they both just kind of learn their lessons amicably and move on.
Though Radnor is clearly pushing himself visually, the film doesn’t seem to have a reason for any particular track or pan. But Radnor does have a good idea of how his resolutely talky scenes should move. He writes tight, funny dialogue, paces it well, and cuts reliably to close-ups of faces at just the right moment, effectively nailing the emotional level of a scene to its proper place on screen. All of which is to say he has the makings of a limited but talented director.
Still, unless you have a degree in some esoteric study and secretly wish you could spend the rest of your life laying around reading, it’s going to be hard to care about Liberal Arts (you might, for some reason, have an unnatural affinity for the movie’s more far-reaching joke, including a recurring one in which Zac Efron plays Jesse’s cosmic-hippie guardian angel). But if you are an obsessive recreational reader, Liberal Arts is a fine reason to put your book down and not feel so lonely for an hour and a half.