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