Liberal Arts

Art & Culture


How can it be that a film that should be just my cup of tea, with actors I like, should make me end up wanting to throw things at the screen? It's almost enough to make me want to vote Republican.
Jesse (Josh Radnor) is a 35 year old who has lost his way in life. He has also lost a girlfriend, and is dissatisfied with his work. So when he gets a call from his favourite college professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins) to come to his retirement dinner, he hops in his rental car and scoots all the way from New York to Ohio. There he meets a 19 year old student, Zibby aka Elizabeth (Elizabeth Olsen) who seems to really like him, and a disturbed young student called Dean, who he befriends. Throw in a wacky guy called Nat (Zac Efron) who wears a silly woolen hat and spouts new age babble, plus a man-hating literature professor (Allison Janney), and you have a full set of (not so) interesting characters.
Don't get me wrong. There are at least 2 wonderful actors in there. Richard Jenkins is the guy I would have to play me in my biopic (assuming Brad and George were tied up); and if I was still 19, I would fly to L.A. and propose to Elizabeth Olsen on the spot (yeah, creepy, I know). But good actors don't make a good film, and this film is exclusively self-centred, and the self in question is actor/writer/director Josh Radnor. Looking strangely like the love child of David Schwimmer (Ross in Friends) and Clive Owen, he is almost Woody Allen-like in his self-absorption. Although the film may pretend to incorporate different people, they are all there to service his own journey towards self-awareness, by providing valuable life lessons.
Namely: a) what's a guy to do when a gorgeous and mature 19 year old wants him to be her first sexual partner; b) however self-absorbed you are, there's always someone sadder and lonelier than you can reach out to, so as to make you look/feel good; c) how handy to have an older mentor who conveniently forgets that you can't go back, so that you can recognise the truth of it in your own life; d) it's surprising but useful to find an older woman who can't resist you; e) and at the end of it all, there's someone just right waiting for you who's been there all along but you just didn't notice her. Till now.
Am I being unfair? I do hope so, because this film deserves a good kicking. It is so pleased with itself, and yet is even more immature than the central character. Like Charlie Kaufman/Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, I have a major antipathy to life lessons in movies, especially ones that have to be spelled out at the end in case we were too stupid to pick them up. I despise movies that use culture as a shorthand for superiority and affinity (there's endless talk about music and books). And I reserve a special loathing for film directors/actors who have beautiful younger women fall for them (and yes, that's you too Woody Allen in Manhattan).
When you factor in some twiddly widdly indie music, and a running time that is padded out to 90 minutes (without the padding, we're talking 40 minutes tops), then I think you can safely assume that I'm not recommending this film, and am only remotely kind to it because of the sublime genius of Elizabeth Olsen and the well-earned craft of Richard Jenkins.

Phil Raby

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