Liberal Arts

How could John Radnor’s film that co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and Zac Efron be remotely entertaining, not to mention intellectually stimulating? Go see it and find out.

Liberal ArtsLiberal Arts is a uniquely intriguing film. It may not qualify to play in their league, but in many ways it is just as entertaining as the great The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Pitch Perfect. Centering on a 19-year-old college student, a 35-year-old college graduate lost in space and a 65-year-old college professor who is reluctantly retiring, it focuses on how we call can lose meaning in life if we decide to look solely into the past as opposed to the future.

The 65-year-old gentleman is played by one of the most accomplished actors working today, Richard Jenkins, here playing Prof. Peter Hoberg.Primarily because of his overwhelming disgust with faculty meetings, he has decided to foolishly retire. In the process, he has invited Jesse Fisher, a 35-year-old former student, to attend his retirement party at his beloved Ohio college.

Jesse, played by writer/director Josh Radnor, is spinning his wheels working in New York in the Admissions Department of a local university.Though an extraordinarily nice guy, his personal life is nothing more than a dead end. He dresses poorly, and only gets a decent shirt when his clothing is stolen at a laundromat. Poor Jesse.

Intrigued by Prof. Hoberg’s invitation, he drives to his Ohio alma mater,meeting Zibby, the daughter of other friends of the professor’s. Zibby, played with spunk by Elizabeth Olsen, is a 19-year-old music student, and the two immediately recognize a magnetic attraction. Sure,Liberal Arts could have fallen apart at that junction, as both deal with an attraction that makes no sense to anyone, including them.

Mr. Jenkins’ Prof. Holberg is a Sad Sack, and his decision to retire is a complete, unmitigated disaster. His whole life has been spent in the classroom,and it is from that experience that he finds intellectual and emotional strength.However, he discovers that when you are 65, don’t count on anyone to give you a break if you ask to revisit a major decision. It’s easy to become yesterday’s news at that age, and given the fact that I am also 65, my heart ached for the professor and his plight.

If the name Richard Jenkins means little to you, I encourage you to see his extraordinary performances in two recent memorable films. First and foremost, he received an Oscar nomination for his unforgettable role in The Visitor (2007), playing again a college professor whose wife has just died.Wrestling with loneliness, he reluctantly travels to New York to participate in a seminar when he meets two undocumented immigrants living in his all but forgotten condo. While I say this occasionally, I loved that film.

Additionally, he played the “father/caretaker” of a 14-year-old vampire inthe chillingly alluring film Let Me In (2010). To protect the young girl, he had to make sure that she was able to eat regularly, and the film is magnificently mesmerizing for all the wrong reasons.

As for Mr. Radnor’s character, Jesse is still looking for a decent runway in life where he can take off and fly. At one point he cryptically tells Zibby that he minored in history to ensure that he would have few meaningful opportunities in life. While I recognized Radnor’s plight, it was hard to be too sympathetic given that I majored in history at a liberal arts college here in Indianapolis.

Additionally, Mr. Radnor’s comments reminded me of that classic remark of a young, completely foolish girl that young Harold’s (Bud Cort) mother hired from a dating service in my all-time favorite film, Harold and Maude (1971). As Harold looked in horror through the living room window as his mother interviewed Sunshine (that was her actual name) the following occurs:

Mother:What are you majoring in in college?

Sunshine:(revealing what everyone knew, namely that she was unglued) Oh, I am majoring in poli-sci with a minor in home ec so that I will have something to fall back on.

I should note that when Harold heard this comment, he proceeded to horrify both his mother and Sunshine by faking killing himself by setting himself on fire in the backyard. Sunshine mercifully fled, screaming with every step.

Ironically, the strength of Liberal Arts flows from what you would have initially assumed was its weakness, namely the performance of Ms. Olsen as Zibby. The only film that I have seen her in was Martha Marcy Mae Marlene(2011), which was about as much fun to watch as a recreation of an Iroquois hunting party slowly torturing a Jesuit missionary to death in New England in the middle of the 17th century.

Here, however, she completely embraces the role as a smart, young woman who sees an older man, particularly Jesse, as a welcome change from her school’s dating tedium. Even when Radnor reminds her of the reality that he is 35, she quickly responds, “I don’t care.” And she didn’t.

However, joining our above-named group of genuinely likeable people is a malicious performance by Allison Janney, here playing a completely cynical Professor Judith Fairfield. In a classic scene, we find Jesse being seduced byher after Zibby throws him out of her room when he rejects having sex. After their encounter, Prof. Fairfield throws him out of her bed, yelling at him to leave. When he responds with a bit of hurt emotion, she dismisses him with the stark comment, “Grow some steel armor around that mushy heart.” Ms.Janney’s performance is unforgettable.

What is so intriguing about Liberal Arts is its study of what it takes to find some general meaning in life. The whiners are always going to be thrown out of the bed, so it remains fundamentally important to embrace the here and now.

Incredibly, that lesson is taught by Zac Efron, as ridiculous as that must sound. Here he plays Nat, an itinerant Philosopher King that Radnor keeps meeting in chance encounters. While he first appears completely deranged, Efron embraces the underlying morality tale captured by Liberal Arts, namely that one should quit moaning about what you want to be and simply focus on who you are.

While I know not many of you will be inspired by a film that focuses on advice from Mr. Efron, let me encourage you to hunt down the marvelous film entitled Me and Orson Welles (2008), where he plays one of the legendary director’s caddies named Richard Samuels. The kid’s got talent, and Liberal Arts benefits from his small role.