24 September 2012

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Like Killing Them Softly, Liberal Arts features a good performance by Richard Jenkins. That's about all the two movies have in common, though. A clearly confused guy outside the screening of Josh Radnor's new film this evening asked, "Is it good? Is it, like, a thriller?" Well, it was pretty good, but no, it is not a thriller.

Thirty-something college admissions officer Jesse (also played by Radnor) is having a fairly decent life in New York. He and his girlfriend have just split up and someone stole all his clothes from the laundry, but in New York, c'est normal, non? He gets an invitation to the retirement party of his (second) favourite professor (Jenkins) at the liberal arts college he attended and because he enjoyed his time there and because he liked Peter--and because he doesn't have any other plans--he decides to go. While there, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the daughter of another former student of Peter's and currently a student at the college. They hit it off, even though when Jesse says he attended the college in the '90s, her roommate (Ali Ahn), replies, "That's, like, when we were born." Nonetheless, Jesse and Zibby begin a fairly '90s kind of friendship/proto-relationship. She makes him a CD of the classical, baroque and opera music in her favourite ever course and he promises to write to her--real letters. Later, he does the math and realises that although the age difference won't be so bad when he's 87 and she's 71, it isn't ideal right now.

He goes to visit her again anyway, bumping into Peter while he's there and earning himself a lecture in the process. But they begin to realise that while their relationship may have worked in the hypothetical, their differences in opinion over matters as diverse as whether reading a popular vampire trilogy can be justified, and whether it's appropriate for Jesse to take Zibby's virginity, may prove problematic. As with Sweet Tooth, there is a lot of talking about books and literacha along the way. Many of the books aren't named--Jesse bonds over a 1,100-page postmodernist novel whose author commits suicide (Infinite Jest, then) with a loner student battling with depression, for example. But both Jesse and Zibby have a lot of growing up to do and a lot to learn, and not just about books.

Also of note is Alison Janney, who plays Jesse's ice-cold favourite professor from college, who converted him to the joys of the romantics, especially Blake, but who ignores him every time she sees him around campus, despite his attempts to compliment her teaching. Janney steals the show, and the scenes between Jesse and Peter and even between Peter and a wise stoner/hippie played by Zac Efron are the most entertaining. There are sweet moments between Jesse and Zibby and Olsen, as ever, puts in a good performance, but the relationship feels a bit heavy-handed at times, and although it's easy to believe in their friendship, I don't think they ever really convince as a potential couple.

Liberal Arts reminds me of a Zach Braff film in some ways; Garden State maybe. There is a lot of sitting round talking and analysing and over-analysing of one's feelings, without much in the way of plot. This may be a product of Radnor in the writer-director-star role. If you're in the mood for an indie-rom-com-drama kinda film, Liberal Arts will do the trick. It's entertaining and in some places quite thoughtful and sharp, but it doesn't feel that different from all the other indie-rom-com-dramas out there.

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