Film review: ‘Liberal Arts’ – You call that a happy ending?

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kevin MossJosh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen star in "Liberal Arts," showing at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

“Liberal Arts” is a good movie. Beyond that, it is a smart movie; it is the rare film that allows its characters to explore ideas about language, music, philosophy and come up with intelligent observations about such.

That said, I’m not sure who is dumber – Josh Radnor, the writer-director of “Liberal Arts,” or Jesse Fisher, the character he plays. Jesse is blisteringly idiotic in turning down a come-on from the gorgeous, sensitive and self-assured 19-year-old drama student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen); at the pivotal moment when Jesse says no, without even seeming to mull over the issue, I literally spoke to the screen, something I generally reserve only for Denver Nuggets games. “You are a moron, and your pecker should fall off – not that it’s doing you much good anyway,” I said. (Interestingly, I have said the same thing during basketball broadcasts.) Making matters worse, Jesse later that night sleeps with a wretched, unattractive woman.

In the normal course of things, and especially as they play out in cinema-world (see, for example, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” to which “Liberal Arts” pays specific homage), Jesse would get his comeuppance. Radnor would make sure that Jesse’s decision plagued him, that the image of Zibby’s eager green eyes and long legs would be an interminable distraction. If Radnor had been feeling particularly vengeful during the writing process, he might even make Jesse’s pecker fall off. Would have worked for me.

Instead, Radnor actually rewards Jesse, dropping in his lap, at film’s end, another attractive woman. Preposterous. But Radnor (best known for his starring role as Ted Mosby on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother”) seems to think his audience believes Jesse deserves a happy ending, when I am certain that 97 percent of viewers (let’s break it down as 99 percent of male viewers and 95 percent of women), would think, like me, that Jesse screwed up beyond redemption.

Radnor, I’m sure, would respond that he had a point to make here. “Liberal Arts” is about age and aging and acting age-appropriately. Jesse, a 35-year-old visiting his alma mater, was just behaving as a 35-year-old should when a 19-year-old college student tries to seduce him. But Zibby is no wayward tart looking to score a one-nighter notch on her bedpost. She is well-bred and honest, and by the time Jesse turns down her advances, it has been established that the two have a real chemistry. Zibby is on the mature side, Jesse leans toward immature, making that 16-year difference look a lot less unbridgeable. If the 60-something Jay Pritchett can have the 30-ish hottie Gloria on “Modern Family,” then Jesse should be able to have Zibby. Case closed.

Away from that singularly wrong-headed decision, “Liberal Arts” has much to commend. Just as Woody had his New York City in “Manhattan,” Radnor has the leafy college campus in “Liberal Arts” – a place where everyday magic can happen. The film, set at an elite Ohio school (Radnor is a graduate of Ohio’s Kenyon College), nails the anything-is-possible flow of college life: the revealing conversations on the stage of an empty theater; the brief but potentially enlightening encounters with the stoner dude (Zac Efron) on the bench; the chance to wake up at 11:30 to a day of discussing books and trying to remember why you reek of stale beer; the hook-ups. Or not. (Dude, seriously?) Personally, I have zero sentimentality for my college years, which were mostly rotten, yet even I found the depiction in “Liberal Arts” enchanting.

There are scenes that show Radnor’s promise as an auteur. Zibby gives Jesse a mix-tape of classical music, and the way it opens Jesse’s thinking is touching. A sequence where they swap hand-written letters plays nicely with dialogue and visual style.

Olsen, a younger sister of the former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, earned huge acclaim for her role in last year’s disturbing “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and proves immensely likable as Libby. Olsen is almost too absorbing for the indie aesthetic of “Liberal Arts”; I see her as the second coming of Maggie Gyllenhaal. Radnor has chosen well in his casting of supporting roles. Richard Jenkins plays Professor Hoberg, Jesse’s mentor; Allison Janney plays the icy, life-sucking Professor Fairfield. Both characters chime in on the issue of aging: Hoberg is having severe second thoughts about his decision to retire; Fairfield is the 50-something witch who Jesse moves on to after passing on the far more appropriate Zibby. In this company, Radnor, the actor, is adequate, nothing more.

With “Liberal Arts,” Radnor has undertaken to make a feel-good film of likable characters, enlightening scenes, upward story arcs. But really, what would have this truly feel good is if Jesse had gotten his happy ending.