The opening night film at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival, Liberal Arts’ producer, Claude Dal Farra, introduced the movie at the time with a question he posed to director Josh Radnor, “Why do you want to make a feel good movie?”
Liberal Arts is, if nothing else, a feel good movie — sweet, cute, and warm — a romantic comedy best-served to under-35 significant others snuggled under blankets. It is also a vast improvement over Radnor’s debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, in the simple fact that Radnor has grown more comfortable with his comedic instinct, and he tones down his inclination to pick and poke at his character’s psyches with boiled-down psycho-jabber.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old university admissions counselor living in New York who is called back to his alma mater, a small college in rural Ohio (the movie was shot on the campus of Kenyon College), for the retirement party of his favorite professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins). There he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a pretty sophomore. Jesse and Zibby hit it off during the weekend, and before he returns to New York, Zibby gives him a classical music mix CD and invites him to write her the “old fashioned” way, that is, on paper. Back in New York, the music begins to impact Jesse’s life in whimsical, often hilarious ways, and the couple’s letter correspondence blossoms into a relationship.
What is most appealing about Liberal Arts is its softly nostalgic longing for the sweet simplicity and intellectual leisureliness of collegiate life. We are most affected not through the babbling about books and poets, but in quirky ways Radnor works their influence into mood and feel of the film, overlaying the classical tracks and personifying the unchecked cerbreality in the diametrically opposed personae of two of the movie’s most enjoyable characters, Nat (Zac Efron) and Prof. Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney).
Nat is a stoner-ham, animated and spirited, speaking always in jarbled hippie-esse. Judith is a romantics professor whose been worn down by academia, becoming cold, cynical, and detached. We need both these characters in Liberal Arts to prevent Radnor from losing himself in what drowned his first movie, all the bromidic soap-boxing, in which all motivations, self-understandings, aspirations, and philosophies are hemmed-and-hawed, mumbled and jawed, with the same vainly self-conscious satisfaction of sporting a tweed jacket on a gear-less bicycle.
There’s some of that in Liberal Arts. Jenkins character is mostly reduced to kvetching, and, as in Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor’s Jesse needs some poor soul to inexplicably need him. That’s where John Magaro’s mopey and pointless Dean comes in. But Olsen and Efron remain center stage. Olsen’s Zibby has a wry spunk, a knavish spirit which goes a long way towards making the cutesy, hug-y stuff bearable. And Efron’s natural sincerity is an asset. His Jesse is accused of being too soft-hearted, and we come to think so much of him, but that’s the point. He’s the kind of guy who frets about age, not mortality; affection, not love. “Everything is going to be okay,” Nat tells Jesse, as if they were a duo washed-up in an AA meeting. And of course it is. There’s not that much at stake, and everyone has a good sense of humor.