Movie Review: Liberal Arts–Light but Enjoyable

David Foster Wallace famously gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech –Wallace’s only know public speech–had been printed and reprinted, e-mailed and downloaded time and again, and now is published as the book, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.  Wallace, whose magnificent and enormous novel Infinite Jest is perhaps for the millennium generation what Gravity’s Rainbow was for the Viet Nam generation, is known for his intricate plots and subplots, his baroque sentences, his numerous footnotes, and his expansive and enormous intellect.

Well, Kenyon College and Wallace meet up again in the 2012 comedy Liberal Arts.  Actually, Wallace isn’t there physically, but Infinite Jest is, and the novel and its author play a significant part in a poignant subplot about a depressed, genius undergraduate. In fact, towards the end of the film, the hero tells the hospitalized boy to put down Infinite Jest  (he has already read it three times) and pick up one of the Twilight books! 

Kenyon College, on the other hand, is very much visible–and looks torn right out of a college brochure. The leafy campus, the quaint town, the rural surroundings, all make Kenyon look like a movie set for the perfect college.  However, although Kenyon is one of the more illustrious and demanding liberal arts colleges in the U.S., it offers up a pretty “easy-A” with Liberal Arts. Nothing too difficult, too taxing , or too subtle.

The film tells the story of Jesse (Josh Radnor), a bookish and sensitive admissions officer at a New York City college (read NYU) who is dissatisfied with his job and his life. When he is called back to Kenyon to attend the retirement party of one of his favorite professors (Richard Jenkins), he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an undergraduate studying Improv Theater.

Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts

The 35-year old Jesse and the 19-year old Zibby hit it off immediately and enjoy each other’s company as they wander around the bucolic campus. When Jesse returns to New York, he begins a “pen-pal” relationship with “Zibby” that is sweet, literate and full of hope.

However, when he returns to visit her, the differences in their age–and life experience–plays very much on his mind. (To me, since the actors do not seem all that greatly separated in age,  the age difference did not really seem all that jarring.)  Her attempt to bed him on this second visit is the moral center of the movie.

There are some wonderful performances–Allison Janney as an ice-hearted professor of the British Romantics is marvelous and Zac Efron as a chorus-like sprite that pops in and out of the story is charming and enigmatic. And the lead characters are very likeable.  The camera work between Ohio and New York is beautiful and perfectly captures the shift in energy that Jesse feels in moving between the two places. And the subplot with the depressive undergraduate is interesting enough, if rather slight. (It might have made a better movie in itself.)

In all, the film is concerned with life and its trajectory, with love and its various shadings, and with contentment and its frequent elusiveness. It is funny and literate at times, but for the most part it is a simple story, simply told.  Liberal Arts could have been a much weightier film–but that’s not the film the director chose to make.

I can’t imagine David Foster Wallace liking it. There isn’t much layering here, not much that he could footnote.  It would  have made a very slim novel.


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