The Tuesday Zone: Watching ‘Liberal Arts’ Is a Lot Like Going to a Liberal Arts College

The Tuesday Zone

Would it surprise anyone if I told them that I–a movie blog writer that focuses on gender and random tropes–tend to have strong opinions on movies?  I don’t mean that I won’t hear other viewpoints or change my opinion in light of discussions or further reflection. I just tend to walk out of a movie with some idea how I feel about it.  For generic romantic comedies, I usually have a sense of, “I’ve seen it all before, but/and this movie was enjoyable/dreadful;” for romcoms that break the mold, I tend to think, “That was different, and/but I liked/disliked what they did.”  Yet after this week’s movie, a kind of indie romcom directed/starring/written by How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, I had absolutely no idea how I felt about it.  In fact, I still don’t.  If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go talk to my friends who saw it and see if they can help.  Here’s a brief plot introduction to hold you over while I do that.

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Liberal Arts (2012)

Jesse Fischer (Radnor) is an admissions guy at a university in NYC.  He’s recently broken up with his girlfriend when an old professor of his, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), invites him to a retirement party in Ohio.  There Jesse meets a 19-year-old student named Zibby (Elizabeth Olson; also yes, I’m serious) with whom he hits it off, which is only problematic because he’s 35.  Their relationship grows as Radnor’s script and direction try to juggle at least six subplots.

Still there?  Well, guess what?  I talked to people and none of us have any idea how we feel about this movie.  A large part of that has to do with the six subplots; five center around Jesse, and one centers around his mentor.  Why follow the professor at all?  Well, his story thematically mimics Jesse’s relationship with Zibby in a lot of ways, so the only real way to read it is as a mirror.  Both Jesse and Professor Hoberg need to come to terms with their age.  Alright, cool.  So what about the other subplots?  They try to shoehorn in this idea of growing old being okay, but none really succeed.  There’s a suicidal teenager, a Thoreau-level hippy, a  grumpy English Lit professor, and probably others that I’ve already forgotten.  The theme doesn’t tie into these stories.

They're as out of place as Zac Efron's role, but the difference is that he's delightful in this movie.

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They’re as out of place as Zac Efron’s character, but the difference is that his presence is delightful.

Ah! So maybe this is just a slice-of-life story that shows all the interesting kinds of people one can encounter at a Liberal Arts college?  That’s fine.  Not every movie needs a point.  But then that doesn’t fit, because there would be no reason to include the somewhat melodramatic story with the professor.  That’s only there to mirror what we see with Jesse.  This echoes a complaint that I have with this movie as a whole: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I’m pretty confident that the whole, “You’re old; deal with it,” theme is intended.  I guess the other subplots are meant to be interesting and emphasize the main theme without really adding to it, which is fair for a screenwriter that needs to write a full-length movie.  But one main grievance I have is that SPOILERS-KINDA when Jesse makes the huge decision not to sleep with Zibby, the film treats it as all good and logical.  Yay! You didn’t sleep with someone way younger than you!  But then he goes and sleeps with the much-older English professor, and this is an entirely emotional and childish decision.  He acts like an adult by not sleeping with Zibby, but then makes a kid-like decision in the next ten minutes?  That sounds…contradictory.  Why would he make a decision to act like a grown man and then act like a young boy anyway?

And moreover, this is this is the body of a man.

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And is this not the body of a man?

This isn’t the only contradiction that I noticed (or think I noticed): the entire first half of the movie centers around Zibby making Jesse realize he’s an over-romantic, pretentious child.  She teaches him not to be a literature snob.  When she tells him, “Try not to over-think things, okay?” he responds, “You’re talking to the wrong guy.”  So a huge part of his arc is getting over his tendency to over-think things.  But then his decision to *SAME SPOILER AS BEFORE* not sleep with her comes from thinking heavily about their age difference and her virginity (which is a minor quibble I won’t even get into), and the movie applauds him for that decision.  Again, the lack of consistency is a problem here.  Zibby is meant to lift him from his over-thinking issues, but then he is celebrated for using them to end their relationship.

And to be honest, Zibby is at least slightly a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (something I talked about in my post on (500) Days of Summer).  Jesse is an older, broody male and Zibby is all upbeat.  She eventually gets some minor development, but considering that she’s a 19-year-old, uncertain college student, shouldn’t she be growing as a character at least somewhat?  We only get that feeling in the scene where *SPOILERS AGAIN…sorry* she wants to sleep with Jesse because she doesn’t like the casualness of college kid sex.  When he turns her away, though, she’s basically done as a character in the story, and thus solidifies her place as an additive to Jesse’s arc.

To be fair, she also helps satisfy the "Cute Indie Shot" quota.

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To be fair, she also helps satisfy the “Cute Indie Shot” quota.

All this really sums up to the idea that Liberal Arts is unfocused.  There are a lot of ideas bouncing around, and many would argue that a movie doesn’t have to have a point, per se.  But the problem with that is how strongly Liberal Arts wants to have a point.  The story lines are heavy.  They don’t follow the tropes of the genre in terms of overarching story structure.  And it really tries to hit home a theme, even if it only remembers to come back to it briefly in each subplot.

By the way, about that theme…it’s not really a good one.  The gist of it is that you need to accept your lot in life given your age and move on.  Jesse is 35 and thus needs to find someone his own age and prepare to settle down.  Professor Hoberg needs to accept that he is retired and can’t return to teaching.  While I’m not giving Radnor’s script the kindest reading, that’s basically what it all amounts to.  I like the idea that nostalgia is deadly; but there’s a difference between growing up and forcing yourself to live by standards designated to your age group.  Liberal Arts doesn’t make that differentiation.

Although I do question anyone who is at a frat party and 35 years old.

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Although I do question anyone who’s 35 years old and at a frat party.

But for all the flack I’m giving it, I will say that Liberal Arts is by no means a bad movie.  In fact, it’s pretty damn true to its title: much like a Liberal Arts college, Liberal Arts tries to do everything at once and thus leaves no actual impression.  But also like a Liberal Arts college, we get some really touching moments that could only come from such a helter skelter style.  Zac Efron’s Nat is hilarious; many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny; the lit snob who condemns anyone that reads Twilight-esque books gets put in his place.  There are some pluses–actually, there are many–and this movie is totally enjoyable.  But the lack of cohesion is noticeable, and not just for someone whose (extremely well-paying) job is to pick apart movies like this.  Both of my friends, including one that detests over-analyzing movies in any capacity, had that same feeling.  It’s unfortunate considering all the things that Liberal Arts does right, but this movie needed a few more peer workshops paired with some Underwater Basket Weaving to really make it, like, flow, man.

Did I miss something obvious in this movie?  Have hate/fan mail, or a suggestion for what I should watch next?  Comment on this post or send me something in the form below.

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