Liberal Arts

The romantic comedy, an all too familiar, and often disappointing movie genre. Often consisting of a cookie cutter narrative structure and happily- ever -after ending; these films are commonly devoid of any real subtext other than the traditional “love conquers all.” They are empty and unsatisfying. There is another genre of films I like to call the “rom-com-dram”, or romantic comedy drama, which are able to fill the thematic void present in a classic rom-com. Woody Allen largely pioneered this genre with films like Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and has given rise to a new generation of writers and directors following in his footsteps. One of the most obvious Woody Allen worshipers is Josh Radnor most known for his role as Ted on the hit show How I Met Your Mother. Over the last few years Radnor has made his writing/directorial debut, with his first film Happythankyoumoreplease and his more recent Liberal Arts. Both films fall into this rom-com-dram framework giving the viewer a fun as well as emotional and meaningful experience.

Liberal Arts (2012) is about Jesse, a thirty-five year old admissions counselor who returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of one of his old college professors. While there he meets Zibby, a nineteen-year-old sophomore. The two develop an immediate connection, and begin exchanging hand written letters. Eventually Jesse returns to the college to visit Zibby, and begins to have an existential crisis.  Jesse suffers from the psychological condition known as Peter Pan Syndrome; he still feels like a teenager, and romanticizes his college days; he does not want to grow up. Jesse is also an avid reader and would rather live within the pages of books than the real world. Jesse and Zibby’s relationship is one of symbiosis. They are both reaching for a time in their life that is beyond their grasp. Jesse wants to reclaim his youth, and Zibby wants to grow up all too fast. Each the film’s major characters are dispirited with their current point in life, but they all must learn to accept where they are in order to be happy.

The film is warm and overly romantic, but that’s the point. It’s a film for the readers and the over thinkers of the world. There are several allusions to literature and classical music that may come across as ostentatious to some, but are a delectable treat for others. Jesse is obnoxious and pretentious at times, but he is loveable nonetheless. The film is a bit muddled thematically. Radnor tries to cram a bit too much in rather than focusing all his energy on the idea that life happens, and we eventually have to face the reality of the present. As any good rom-com-dram should, the picture takes us to highs and lows and everywhere in between, with humor sprinkled liberally throughout.

Radnor is not a great filmmaker by any means, but he is also exceptionally green. His first two films have been enjoyable, and help define his personal style and themes, but they lack the confidence and ambition to be something truly great. Will Radnor be able to develop the self-assurance and maturity to make something that goes beyond mere entertainment? Or will he be like his idol Woody Allen who has numerous good films, but only a few greats? It will be exciting to see how Radnor blossoms over the years to come.

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