Liberal Arts (2012)
by: Lorena Sander
One would never expect a movie written and directed by a sitcom star (Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame) to chastise its audience for watching too much TV. Liberal Arts, billed as a comedy, is a melancholic take on what people take, leave behind, and sometimes give up in pursuit of higher education. While the movie uses familiar cyphers (a precocious and intense college sophomore, an academic ice queen, a man-child who won’t let college go) and tropes (books as the totems of intellectuals) it still manages to connect its multiple stories much like a game of chutes and ladders.
Josh Radnor, who also stars, plays a man in the throes of an early onset midlife crisis. While there is nothing original about “handwritten letters in voice over,” the sheer earnestness of the exchanges makes them easy to appreciate. Can the modern man be a hero in a romantic novel? And what are the many issues that ensnare Romance? Nostalgia for a place and its possibilities is the driving force in this movie, as are the perils of not knowing when or how to let go.
It is hard to know who to root for in Liberal Arts. Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney give wonderful performances, taking emotional masks on and off on cue, people at the top of their fields who can’t really deal with hero worship. Elizabeth Olson takes to her role as plot device surprisingly well. All the characters seem a little bit too good to be true, and as the plot advances, their frailties are left bare. Can people figure out what to do with each other before they know what to make with themselves? The answers, Liberal Arts seems to say, are always in the attempts.