Film review: Liberal Arts

Have you ever watched a poor magician? Spotted them shoving cards up their sleeves, tugging on invisible threads and swapping props when they thought you weren’t looking? Hopefully not. But you can imagine how it rather spoils the magic.

Watching a poor film can be a similar experience. When characters, or the fates themselves, behave not because that’s how they would in reality, but because the filmmakers are clearly trying to push the film or the audience in a certain direction – when you can see the sleeve-shoving, the prop-swapping and the invisible threads as the filmmakers desperately try to make you feel a certain way or, sillier, make characters act out of character to further the plot – it rather spoils the magic of the film. You feel cheated. When I see such a fudged attempt at manipulation, it’s just as difficult to engage and enjoy on screen as it is at that magic show.

Writer-director-star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is full of such poor sleight of hand:

  • When conflict arises it’s clumsy and unnatural – clearly written in because the writer desired conflict, not because it was inevitable or even likely in the scene in question.
  • Characters dispense (dubious) wisdom not because the moment is appropriate, but because the writer wanted to make a film Full of Wisdom.
  • And then there are the Close-Ups at Emotional Moments. You’ve seen them before. Liberal Arts presents them without shame; there you are passively staring at a pedestrian medium shot, when the director wants you to notice that the characters are experiencing something Emotionally Poignant, and suddenly their faces are in yours, ten feet tall. This cut is your cue, audience: care!

But, of course, it’s almost impossible to care when someone is incessantly shouting “care!” at you. Liberal Arts breaks the golden rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Show me why I should care and I will. Tell me to care and I can’t.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins play their parts gracefully. Olsen is believable as a confident, wiser-than-her-years young go-getter, though her role as the innocent virgin the older man must decide not to dirty makes for uncomfortable gender politics. Jenkins is winning as a professor who changes his mind about retiring, but his is a pointless subplot with no resolution. Radnor the actor encounters three other minor characters:

  • Zac Efron pretending to be wacky (clues: he wears a woolly hat and does martial arts at inappropriate moments), an obviously marked deck who exists solely to deliver Radnor the bland epiphany that “everything is okay”
  • Allison Janney as a nihilistic professor who unconvincingly seduces our hero – as usual Janney is great value but her impact on the film or our hero is almost invisible
  • And a suicidal student who I think exists only to make Radnor the actor feel even better about the character he’s playing. None of these characters has any bearing on the plot or themes of the film; they act solely as disappointing distractions.

Radnor the director attempts a couple of cinematic showpieces but they don’t hit any high notes – a montage of New York shots set to classical music turns out to be just a montage of New York shots set to classical music; a scene where opera makes everyone appear more beautiful is more amusing. The rest of the film is taken up with characters navel gazing at one another (but really at the audience); there’s not much to look at, if there’s anything to listen to.

Then there’s the plot itself: Radnor the writer spends most of the film building up a relationship between two well-matched characters, in typical rom com style (the awkward first meeting – featuring I-like-you-lots Close-Ups; the adorable first few dates; the disapproving minor characters; the relationship-jeopardising tiff; the reckless revenge; the grown-up make-up), then in the last 20 minutes discards it for something else altogether. I suspect he’s trying to impart a lesson about growing up or moving on, but it’s difficult to care, I’m so thrown by the fact that what started as a card trick has turned into a juggling act – and so disappointed that he’s made such a poor effort to make me believe in it in the first place.