13 January 2013
LIBERAL ARTS (Dir. Josh Radnor, 2012, US) - Fear of Living
Liberal Arts is notably restrained, denying us the rituals often intrinsic to American mainstream films in which relationships are predicated on outrageously disingenuous sentiments to do with love, fear and loneliness. Writer-director Josh Radnor situates comical observations of middle class, urban anxieties in the periphery of men and women struggling to reclaim a past romanticised by a present day lack of fulfilment. When Jesse (Josh Radnor), a thirty-something university admissions officer, is invited to a retirement party being held in the honour of his old university professor, he unexpectedly strikes up a relationship with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19 year old student. It is a romantic relationship doomed to fail since the age difference between the two of them becomes a source of unease especially for Jesse who amusingly attempts to justify the age gap as extraneous in light of their instant compatibility. Radnor uses the adventurous world of fiction, imagining novels as a means of constructing an invalidated reality in which no one exists singularly as defined by the real world. The everyday politics of the workplace and its impact on those who refuse to become involved in such political machinations resonates in the ageing and lonely professor played by Richard Jenkins. Jesse’s mid life existential crisis encompassing failed relationships, boredom and reading lots of books recalls the cinema of Woody Allen and more pertinently the Mumblecore school of filmic thought in which ‘doing nothing’ is a cause of celebratory thirty something angst. Yet Mumblecore is a distantly slight influence especially since Radnor refuses to dispense with narrative interests. Another interesting aspect of the film is a nostalgia for the past that seems to have been cultivated by Jesse. When the present fails to excite or provide interest, the past is resuscitated to provide escape as is the case with his memories for University life. Taking comfort in a past which over time has become distorted, reconstructed and re-interpreted is what complicates Jesse’s displacement in the present. The fear of living in the present gradually emerges as the real thematic concern since it is Jesse’s anxiety of growing old that creates much of the drama. This is an intelligent and mature look at modern day, if not, middle class dilemmas.