Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts
Dir. Josh Radnor
Country: USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 97mins

Do you think Josh Radnor grew up idolising Woody Allen? In the span of just two films, the star of television sitcom How I Met Your Mother has marked a very clear identity for himself as a film writer and director. With Happythankyoumoreplease from 2010, and now Liberal Arts, Radnor has very much pencilled himself in as one of many “Wood Allen lite” filmmakers whose inspirations are as clear as day. His leading ladies in both have even been the same doe-eyed, winsome type. While Allen certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on films about the romantic entanglements and philosophical dilemmas of somewhat neurotic New Yorkers, Radnor’s methods are obviously in ode to Allen’s classic heyday. His dialogue heavy screenplay is peppered with supposed wit about the human condition, but it lacks the sophistication of not only Allen’s best work, but also the best work of his other countless imitators.

At the centre of Radnor’s film is the inter-generational relationship between Radnor’s New Yorker college admissions officer, Jesse Fisher, and a student that he meets at his old college when visiting for the retirement dinner of his “second favourite teacher”. The girl is Zibby – it’s short for “Elizabeth”, code for “I’m a kooky free spirit, yo” – and she’s played by Elizabeth Olsen with a refreshingly wavering sense of confidence and self. This role is so different to Olsen’s breakthrough in last year’s stunning Martha Marcy May Marlene, and there are times with Olsen chooses lovely moments to help form her character into one that isn’t simply the fantasy girlfriend redux that she constantly threatens to become. Thankfully, and this is to Radnor’s credit, the character of Zibby is written in a way that merely flirts with the (ugh, I know!) “manic pixie dream girl” idea without fully succumbing to it, whilst Jesse skirts around being the true definition of a stunted man child. That the two have discussions about art and life is nice and that’s certainly more than can be said for other films of this type, I guess.

Sadly though, many of the film’s strikes at earnest fall flat. A montage of quaint letter writing between Zibby and Jesse actually induced guffaws with its series of excessively pompous views on music and the world. It’s efforts at finding deep things to say – “nobody feels like an adult, it’s the world’s dirty little secret” – sound like little more than pageant poetry from a college student who hasn’t actually lived the life they’re trying to sell as hard knock. A stoner, played nicely by Zac Efron, appears sporadically to make wise observations and Alison Janney arrives to play a dead-hearted cougar that is treated with little more than pity. The movie’s troublesome fringes hover about as if suspended in midair as Radnor fails to find a natural way to incorporate them.

Where Radnor’s screenplay and direction really go wrong is its failure to probe either of the characters in as great a depth as he perhaps thinks he is. By allowing them the flourishes of inorganic quirkiness – she impulsively needs to hug people for reasons I can’t fathom, whilst he adopts a depressed student whose medication has rendered him zombified – they act as scapegoats for the drama. Little effort is made to explore why either of these people are the way the way they are and while the actors have nice chemistry, they make decisions that make little sense. Its central theme of never being too old or too young to learn major life lessons is a nice one, but the film, warm as it is, is tripped up by being made by somebody who hasn’t quite matured enough as a filmmaker to say it in a more grown-up way. Its flights of goofy absurdity - epitomised in a scene in which Jesse rushes around the campus with a Gene Kelly-esque giddiness, the film gushes at the idea of students sitting around reading and theorising between one another, and then throws in shots of kids playing frisbee and hippies playing the guitar - stick out like sore thumbs in a film that is so frequently aiming for the head as much as the heart. If Radnor had been able to focus more on the bittersweet nature of his lead characters without the fluff excess then Liberal Arts could have been an education worth taking. C+

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