There is a pleasantly discursive quality to Liberal Arts (now playing at The Magnolia in West Village), a low-key dramedy about a no-longer-young, not-yet-old fellow who doesn’t realize he’s signing up for post-graduate lessons in self-awareness when he pays a return visit to his fondly remembered, even romanticized, alma mater.
But the seeming randomness of the events that unfold in the ruefully wise and witty screenplay by Josh Radnor — a TV sitcom regular (How I Met Your Mother) who also directed the film and plays the lead male character — is more apparent than real.
It’s easy to imagine one of the seasoned academics portrayed in the film — if not the easygoing English professor played by Richard Jenkins, then the acerbic romantic literature expert played by Allison Jenney — making the movie mandatory viewing and assigning students to explicate the underlying framework of comparisons and contrasts, exposition and payoff.
As a director, Radnor allows himself, Olsen and just everyone else in the cast ample time to define their characters. He clearly feels no need to rush and no obligation to fulfill expectations.
Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old admissions counselor at a New York university where, evidently, few of the students he interviews demonstrate appreciation or capacity for higher education. (He none-too-subtly advises an unseen interviewee: “A spell check might be nice on these essays.”)
Years after graduation, he still treasures his experiences at an Ohio college at a time in his life when the world appeared to full of endless opportunities, and a liberal arts education was — in his young mind, at least — a continuous series of illuminations and revelations. Little in the post-graduate world, he frets, has lived up to the promise he felt he was given back in those good old days.
So when Jesse is invited back to his alma mater for the retirement of Peter Hoberg (Jenkins), one of his favorite professors, he eagerly accepts. Once there, he’s not all together surprised to learn that, after announcing plans to depart academia after 37 years, Hoberg is having serious second thoughts about his decision. But Jesse is distracted from Hoberg’s situation — and, really, from just about everything else — as soon as he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the attractive daughter of Hoberg’s friends.
The good news: Zibby is as open to new experiences as Jesse was when he was a student. The bad news: Zibby is a student. Specifically, a 19-year-old student. Despite their instant attraction and her obvious maturity, Jesse behaves as though uncomfortably aware of every day that constitutes their age divide.
As a director, Radnor allows himself, Olsen and just everyone else in the cast ample time to define their characters, letting his camera linger like a lightly bemused but sympathetic observer as these people casually reveal — and, occasionally, artfully conceal — their inner longings, avid enthusiasms and darkest fears. Radnor clearly feels no need to rush and no obligation to fulfill expectations.
When Jesse and Zibby part company with a sincere promise to keep in touch through handwritten letters, Liberal Arts slips gracefully into an unabashedly romantic groove, leading to a deftly sustained sequence that recalls some of the warmer romantic stretches in the cinema of Francois Truffaut.
As Jesse rambles around Manhattan listening to a classical-music greatest-hits CD that Zibby burned for him, we see him noticing a heretofore undetected beauty in the places and faces he encounters amid the Big Apple hustle and bustle.
And we hear the two characters reading aloud their increasingly intimate missives, building to the letter in which Zibby suggests that she’d really prefer to see him again back in Ohio.
At this point, you may think you know where Liberal Arts is going. But you’d more than likely be wrong.
With a nod and wink toward the character Woody Allen created for himself in Annie Hall (and other films), Radnor writes and plays Jesse as a romantic intellectual who gradually reveals an unpleasant smugness he barely can control. His condescending put-down of the Twilight books — which Zibby consumes as harmless guilty pleasures — would be even funnier if it didn’t so obviously impede, if not fatally sabotage, the progression of a nascent romance.
Then again, Jesse isn’t the only character here with self-destructive tendencies. Nor, come to think of it, is he the only one who’s desperately discontent. Check out the casual cruelty of Janney’s character as she shatters a few of Jesse’s remaining illusions.
To his credit, Radnor isn’t interested in creating clear-cut heroes and villains here (though he comes awfully close to the latter with Janney’s acerbic maneater). Rather, he invites us to sympathetically view, and perhaps develop a rooting interest for, flawed yet fully developed characters, some of whom may actually learn from their mistakes.