“Why do I like this guy so much?”
“Because he’s likable.”
This exchange of dialogue sums up my thoughts about Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (2012), which is likable in an indefinable way and has a script that would rather have characters define each other and spell out the message than characters that define themselves. Another telling sequence is one in which two characters discuss a book and its author without mentioning the name of either. I’m pretty sure it’s David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but the movie never lets you know, which gives a warm feeling of superiority if you recognize it but also makes you recognize how superior the movie thinks of itself, an opinion it hardly has the clout to harbor.
The movie stars Radnor as a 30–something named Jesse who works in the admissions office of a New York college but pines for his Ohio alma mater, not just the campus—though when he does visit, he does observe the fairly standard Midwestern collegiate grounds with a hushed reverence—but for the feeling of being 19 and having nothing to do but read and discuss opinions on everything. This is a natural feeling, and the movie does a nice job of presenting that longing without making Jesse completely pathetic, which, though it is natural to yearn for youth, at its very core, is. It also does a nice job of showing why the pull to return to Ohio academia is so seductive, particularly because it casts as its embodiment Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Zibby, the sophomore who becomes infatuated with Jesse, which causes him to become infatuated with that infatuation.
Jesse leaves the city to go back to the school to honor a favorite professor, Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), who’s retiring, and he meets Zibby, who’s certainly mature and high-minded for her age but still 19. Jesse is incredulous when Zibby requests he write to her when he goes back to New York, but he does, convincing himself that it’s innocent, until a letter from her comes to him stating her romantic designs for him. Jesse, who loves the idea of being appealing to someone like Zibby (he thanks a character for mistaking that he might be a student), is also aware of the impropriety of an adult in his mid-30s dating a person with the childish moniker of Zibby. However, he logically works it out, making a chart comparing their ages. At first it’s disquieting, as he discovers that when he was 16 she was 0, but after realizing that when he will be 87, she’ll be 71, he talks himself into it. Not enough to tell Hoberg, who is dealing with his own loss of youth, but enough to journey back to Ohio and spend time with Zibby on the quad.
The movie is pretty predictable (spoiler: the October-May romance doesn’t work, and Jesse ends up with the pretty bookstore clerk his own age that we meet in the first five minutes and recognize immediately as his romantic destiny), and it’s slight, with meaningless scenes added to give it an acceptable running time (there’s a rudderless subplot involving Hoberg, a mystic hippy played by Zac Efron who emerges only to give good advice, a silly diversion with a student Jesse regards as a younger version of himself, and an insipid sequence where Jesse chides Zibby for her casual enjoyment of a teen vampire novel, which stands in for him criticizing her for being a teen). But it feels like a conversation you’d have in college, simple and overwrought, but you’re exhilarated to be talking at all.
There’s a particularly good episode when Jesse and Zibby write letters back and forth to each other discussing classical music. It reminded me of Truffaut, especially Two English Girls (1971), not for any stylistic reason, but simply because letter writing and classical music are often on display in Truffaut’s movies, and Liberal Arts with its academic leanings got me in the elevated frame of thinking. So much so that the snob in me, also brought out by Liberal Arts, wants to take some issue with this sequence, which features the Sir Georg Solti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of the overture of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, when everyone knows the Barenboim with the Berlin Philharmonic is the definitive version.
Like many college philosophers, Liberal Arts has a lot of sound and fury but signifies very little, and Liberal Arts has less sound and fury than most, but I think that’s the point. Yes, it’s fine to idealize those days when you were young and had nothing better to do then read David Foster Wallace multiple times, but the image in your mind is better than the time actually was, and certainly better than trying to relive it in your thirties. And that’s how Liberal Arts is, which in many ways fails to provide much insight but is enjoyable just the same, better as a memory than an experience.