“It's just too smart and know-it-all, going about things with a horribly ironic tone...”
If there is one thing I hate more than twee, self-indulgent, pretentious film making – it's films that are twee, self-indulgent and pretentious but done so ironically, and – similarly to Damsels in Distress earlier this year – Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts fall into that very unfortunate bracket.
Radnor is not only both the writer and director of this feature, but the starring role too, as he plays the recently separated thirty-something Jesse, who finds himself unwillingly attracted to intellectual student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Jesse leaves New York to return to his college and attend his former professor's (Richard Jenkins) retirement party, where he meets the teenager with whom he begins a close relationship with through handwritten letters.
As time progresses and mix-tapes and literature are shared, the pair soon develop feelings for one another, although their age difference and Jesse's self-awareness of being too immature become an issue for the school teacher, he must decide if their various similarities in cultural taste is good enough a reason to begin a relationship with the young student.
The beginning to Liberal Arts is actually rather enjoyable, but as the story progresses the characters become more and more unsympathetic and the situations less understandable.
Radnor is attempting to be above the indie genre, almost dissecting and parodying films such as Juno and Garden State, but in turn is appearing just as bad, if not worse. There is one moment where Jesse says, “Who says we have to listen to generic indie music all the time?” as if taking the moral high ground over films that do say you have to listen to generic music all the time, yet Jesse mutters the line as he is given a compilation of classical music, which in it's own way is equally as self-indulgent, as it comes across as saying “Oh aren't we intelligent and cultural”. Combine that with the incessant literature references and it really does grate on you after a while.
However the film's one saving grace is the performances from the cast, which are just about the only thing that don't make you angry in this film. Radnor is likeable on the whole, with a boyish charm that gets him off the hook in instances where usually you'd simply want to punch him. However the best performance comes from Jenkins, who turns in a sincere and endearing performance as the ageing professor. In fact, the storyline portarying his inability of growing old and retiring is a far more intriguing and poignant one than the lead romantic narrative. Meanwhile, Zac Efron is also impressive, playing the carefree layabout Nat.
There is the occasional aspect to Liberal Arts that I liked, but on the whole it's just too smart and know-it-all, going about things with a horribly ironic tone. The characters are all evidently anti-television and extremely pro-literature, and it's so forcefully portrayed within the film that you almost get the impression Radnor is that way inclined himself. Maybe he's in the wrong industry.