★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens at the Enzian Nov. 2
It's exceedingly difficult, Robert Altman notwithstanding, to capture the emotions and angst of multiple generations in the same movie. Yet Josh Radnor, in his sophomore directorial outing, defies the odds by presenting us with Liberal Arts, an insightful, touching and amusing three-generational study that is anything but sophomoric.
Radnor, who also wrote the piece, stars as Jesse Fisher, a directionless 35-year-old college admissions employee living in New York City. In a twisted commentary on aging, Jesse longs to return to the meaning and maturity of his youthful days at a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. He's sort of like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, except Jesse never got his Elaine and he's not 21 anymore. So it's no surprise that, when his favorite former professor (a pitch-perfect Richard Jenkins) asks him to return to his alma mater to deliver a speech at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. He immediately feels right at home again.
"Why do you love it here so much?" a current student asks him. "You get to sit around and read books all day, have really great conversations about ideas," Jesse answers. "People out in the real world – they're not really doing that. Think about it: You can go up to everyone here and say, 'I'm a poet,' and no one will punch you in the face."
Helping to facilitate Jesse's Benjamin Button-like transformation is Zibby, a radiant and precocious 19-year-old played by Elizabeth Olsen, who gives the film truth and beauty, but also some sadness. The two form a strong bond as she, too, is a bit lost among her age group. But it's really the emotional struggles of Jesse's former professor that lend depth. Not happy with his own stage of life, regretful of his retirement and disconcerted by Jesse's attraction to a girl 16 years his junior, he bemoans, "Nobody feels like an adult. It's the world's dirty secret."
If you weren't depressed enough already, Radnor throws you, briefly but brilliantly, into the world of another of Jesse's former professors (Allison Janney), who has all but given up on romance, despite teaching Romanticism. Office politics and the "disappointment of people" have simply weighed her down too much. "Sit through a faculty meeting at a liberal arts college, Mr. Young Person," she tells Jesse. "I assure you you will lose all faith in humanity. … I [still] like to teach. I used to love it."
To Radnor's credit, he injects humor, quirkiness and a wonderfully scathing intellectual indictment of the Twilight series into what could have been the biggest slit-your-wrists flick of the year. Admittedly, he muddles the third act slightly by interjecting too many characters. And Zac Efron, as a hippie college dude, seems out of place. But like the character he plays – a former English/history major – Radnor is well-versed in both subjects and manages to school us on the disappointments, ironies and alienations of the human experience, regardless of our age.