Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cinema File #103: "Liberal Arts" Review

Hey, remember how you like How I Met Your Mother, or did three or four years ago back when it was still good? And remember how you always thought the only way to make the show better was to get rid of all those annoyingly funny other characters and just follow Ted and his adventures being a snobby faux intellectual? Wait, you don't remember wanting that? That's strange, because Josh Radnor seems to think we wanted that, or at least I assume that's what he was thinking when he made a movie called Liberal Arts that basically explores just that scenario. It's like an indie comedy, except without all those pesky jokes that usually just serve to bog things down.

Liberal Arts follows a thirty something former lit major who never got over his time in college and quickly finds that his inability to grow up and move on places him in just the right mental and emotional position for an impromptu romance with a nineteen year old student. I think some of my bland feelings coming away from this film ultimately stem from the fact that I just don't get these people who pine for their college years. I liked college, but frankly, four years was enough. That sort of hipstery douche that can't move on and into real life just seems like the nerdy academic version of those jocks who keep hanging out with highschool kids after they graduate, postponing their inevitable life as a gas station attendant, and nobody likes that guy. Certainly not enough to make a movie out of him anyway.

There were a lot of paths down which this story could have gone, and it seems to go down the safest and most boring one of them. I gather the main thrust of the film is meant to be the main character's struggle with the idea of dating someone so young, but there really isn't anything all that arduous about it. Their relationship is so innocent and free of illicit potential that I never get the sense that anything is wrong with the slight hint of "more-than-friends-ness" between them, and while technically the age problem does come to a head, it never comes across like he's ever tempted to make the wrong or irresponsible choice. A large amount of what we see of their burgeoning attraction literally plays out via long distance letters and casual book and music recommendations without any discussion of anything improper. I'm not saying it needs to be Lolita or anything, but give me a little bit of tension at least.

The arc of the movie basically plays out like the realistic version of a better movie, like you took all the stupid decisions that led to dramatic conflict and matters of interest and rattled off all of the common sense decisions that would have avoided them, then made that incredibly boring movie nobody wants to watch. For example, at one point he appears to have some degree of romantic engagement with three different women essentially at the same time, but instead of mining this juggling act for drama or farce, it never comes to the point that he can be said to be doing anything wrong and he ultimately makes the responsible level headed choice, with no real emotional backlash or fallout. Riveting stuff, I assure you. I guess the film's overall message of learning to accept who you are and where you are in life and not getting stuck in the past is a valid one, but there are plenty of more interesting ways of saying that in the context of a movie.

Most of the supporting cast are wasted. Ken Jenkins, who I almost always like, has a few good moments as a retiring college professor, but his story goes nowhere and takes just a bit too long getting there. Allison Janney shows up as a sexy older lady literature professor, but her ultimate role in the film is pretty clearly telegraphed from the beginning and serves only as a brief distraction from what is already a lightweight series of events. And speaking of telegraphed, if you can't guess what happens to the moody poet kid in the first five minutes of meeting him, I envy your innocence of cinema cliches. Zac Efron surprisingly might just be considered the highlight, playing an almost mystically insightful stoner, even if his performance did give me horrible flashbacks of The Paperboy. Overall, in the absence of an interesting story or characters, Liberal Arts seems like it was Josh Radnor's attempt to load up a script with as many pithy pseudo-profound musings about modern life as he could, and when he ran out quicker than expected, he just kept on powering through.

I always think about movies in terms of the Big Idea. I've talked before on this blog about my own aspirations as a screenwriter and filmmaker, and I can tell the difference between a regular idea, and that Big Idea that I just can't wait to see realized on the big screen. The Big Ideas are the ones you instantly know are worth pursuing, where you may struggle with the details, but you never lose sight of the final product. To think that this was Josh Radnor's Big Idea, this was the movie he had to make, the story he needed to tell, makes me think either something went wrong along the way, or he's just a pretty boring dude. At least his movie is anyway.
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