Thirty years ago, "Liberal Arts" would have been perfection itself at the Amherst Theatre. When the State University at Buffalo's Main Street campus was a bustling undergraduate campus full of liberal arts students, it would have been heaven-sent if the theater just across Main Street were showing this smart comedy-drama about a 35-year-old alumnus returning to his old undergrad school for what turns into a remedial course in love and understanding.
In its current incarnation, the UB Main Street campus isn't quite the ideal for this movie across the street, so it's showing at the Eastern Hills Mall Theater. (Which is, even so, not an ideal distance from UB, but it's the thought that counts.)
It's a sweet, smart, witty and tender little movie about a man who goes back to his alma mater to say some grateful things at the party for his retiring professor (the always exceptional Richard Jenkins, one of the blessings of American indie movies) and discovers a 19-year-old student there who seems almost perfect for him.
What he discovers eventually though is not just the 16-year-age difference – which isn't small for a 35-year-old man, despite its gradual shrinkage as he gets older (as he realizes, when he's 97, she'll be 81 after all) – it's one other bit of her life tenderness that terrifies him.
It's a movie full of very smart people, all of whom are trying desperately to be interesting but not quite getting there yet.? Except of course for the 35-year- old's former professors who are now so interesting that they're close to miserable. And also for a couple of undergraduates he bumps into who are oddly earthy-crunchy wise in one case and not-so-oddly unstable in the other. (The returning alumnus bonds with him over a book which is never specified, but because of its length, its post-modern status and its author's suicide is clearly David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest.")
There's a lot of undergraduate talk, a lot of cynical post-graduate talk and a leavening spritz of ersatz faculty bon mots ("There comes a time in a man's life when it hurts to do the math" says the sadly conflicted retiring professor). It's mostly on the intermittently fascinating level of an undergraduate bull session, which means that most of its attempts at significance are endearing in their failure, rather than annoying.
There's some genuine wit, too, as when our hero explains that he's figured out the best way to treat his parents. "I decided to treat my parents like they're always drunk." (And hence pitiable, if not always ignorable.) And writes to his newfound pseudo-lover that Wagner overtures ought to come with a warning label.
The retiring professor confesses in soul-weariness that in his head he's still 19 and that "nobody feels like an adult. It's the world's dirty secret."
The movie is by turns charming and irksome, but the math eventually works in its favor. Writer/director Josh Radnor is his own star and perfectly watchable. What makes the movie a bit more than that are the people he managed to get – Jenkins, the exceptional Elizabeth Olsen (so remarkable in "Martha Marcy May Marlene") and, in one virtuoso turn as a Romantic poetry professor, Allison Janney, both pretentious and formidable.
If he can keep his ability to attract this kind of talent, it will be fascinating to see the kind of movie Radnor writes and directs when he graduates.
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Josh Radnor, ?Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser
Director: Josh Radnor
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including references, mature thematic material and drinking.
The Lowdown: A 35-year-old alumnus returns to his old college and falls for a 19-year-old student.