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Entries in liberal arts (2)

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5

Friday
Sep212012

Hello I Must Be Going

Hello I Must Be Going is so similar to this week’s other 35-dating-a-19-year-old dramedy, Liberal Arts, that it’s impossible not to notice or compare. Normally, when comparing two movies, one clearly outshines the other, yet Hello I Must Be Going is no better or worse, but it’s exactly as bland. Both films think they’re saying something more than they really are and despite all around solid performances, they fail to make an impact. If one must be chosen as superior, I suppose it would be Liberals Arts, if only because it’s funnier and a bit more heartfelt, but that in no way makes this movie bad. It would have been bad even without the comparison.

Amy (Melanie Lynskey), like so many mopey movie characters these days, is down on her luck. Her husband has just left her, shattering her happy existence, and she has moved back in with her parents, Stan (John Rubinstein) and Ruth (Blythe Danner). She’s been holed up in that house for months now and has had little interaction beyond her family. However, her lawyer father is hoping to nail a big client and is having him and his family over for dinner, so she is forced to doll up and put on a smile. That night, she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), a 19 year old actor and son of the big client, and they instantly make a connection, sparking a secret, off-limits romance that, if discovered, could have serious repercussions for her future and her father’s business endeavors.

That’s the way the movie wants you to think about it at least. The reason the father wants to nail this client so badly is so he can retire, so the worst thing that could happen is that he’d have to wait a couple more years, though a late movie twist makes this reasoning moot anyway. As for Amy and Jeremy, they aren’t doing anything illegal or manipulative. They both clearly have feelings for each other—and as they say, love knows no age—so the consequences seem negligible at most. The stakes are never truly high, though they carry the guise of importance. This realization makes the movie feel aimless, unaware of where it wants to go and what it wants to say. It has the ingredients to make for interesting commentary, but, despite coming close to profundity a couple times, it mixes those ingredients into something most unsavory. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t find the words to create the meaning.

Similarly, the idea of having to be someone others want you to is forced into enough nooks and crannies of the film that the idea ends up becoming a self-parody. Jeremy, for instance, is pretending to be gay because his mother thinks he is. The why behind this decision is hardly explored, instead passed over by a quick throwaway line of dialogue, something about how it’s sometimes easier to be someone that others want you to be. Although not a bad theme, the character motivation doesn’t follow it through. Amy’s eventual maturation doesn’t come from support and understanding from those around her, or even from a realization that she deserves more than what life has given her, but from pressure from others to move on, to forget about the love of her life that dumped her and the second love of her life that is forbidden. She seems to move on by conforming to the ideas of others, not from her own desire to do so.

Hello I Must Be Going is a mess in search of a meaning. The performances are terrific and Lynskey, who is too often relegated to supporting roles, is finally given a chance to shine. She makes the most of it, even if her awards chances are slim, and she crafts a likable, sympathetic character whose charms manage to outweigh the whininess. But the movie as a whole is just there, trying really hard and not doing or saying much of anything. Even its contradicting title, one would assume, is meant to carry meaning, but it does little more than provide an easy zing for movie reviewers like myself. Frankly, it wasn’t long after saying hello that I was ready to get going.

Hello I Must Be Going receives 1.5/5