A couple of weeks ago, I returned to my alma mater, Sacramento State University, for the first time since graduating in 2000. My older niece just got her computer science degree there, and my younger niece started her upper division business classes this semester. Being at Sac was kind of a weird feeling, even though I enjoyed it immensely. I was surprised at how much I recognized and how much I didn’t. The Hornet Bookstore is in a different (and better) place, the University Union building is being expanded, and the Round House now houses a Java City instead of a snack bar and a line of vending machines. On the other hand, Calaveras Hall and Douglass Hall, where I had my English classes, look frozen in time, although the latter has a new coat of paint.
Most of all, I kept seeing ghosts of myself as I was back then, walking around the campus with my backpack stuffed full of textbooks. I was sitting in class while a family of feral chickens clucked and crowed under the windows at the same time every day (True story). Once again, I was hanging out with my best friends, Tim and Greg, heading across the Guy West Bridge to their apartment (they were roommates). I saw myself with the guy who was, in some respects, my on-again, off-again flame, although we were never official. I’ll just call him Guido.
Being with my friends, even if they were only in shadow form, was a heady experience, but I felt like an intruder. Almost two decades have passed, and I’m not that person anymore. With that in mind, I decided to dig up 2012’s Liberal Arts, in which How I Met Your Mother alum Josh Radnor wrote, directed, and starred, using his own alma mater, Kenyon College, as the setting. I was disappointed the first time I saw it (read my spoiler-laden Amazon review here), but after my trip to Sac State I wanted to give Liberal Arts another chance.
Radnor’s character, thirty-five year old Jesse Fisher, flatters himself that he’s still in touch with the college scene. As an admissions officer at a New York City college, he’s in the thick of college life, even if it’s only selling prospective students on choosing his school. His existence is one of monotony, broken only by someone stealing his clothes at the laundromat and his ex-girlfriend moving out. He tries to keep his English degree polished up by reading constantly, but everything feels saggy and unimportant.
Then he gets a call from his second favorite professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), who is retiring. Jesse zooms out to his old stomping grounds, Ohio University, and he’s so glad to be back he dances over a park bench and joyfully spread-eagles under a tree.
Jesse goes to brunch with Peter, along with Peter’s friends, David (Robert Desederio) and Susan (Kate Burton), whose daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) is a sophomore drama major. She wants to know what Jesse was like in college, and Peter tells of how Jesse was mean to his parents at graduation.
After a lackluster speech from Peter at his retirement dinner, Jesse wanders around the campus alone, where he runs into a free spirit named Nat (Zac Efron). The two of them crash a campus mixer, and Jesse realizes immediately that he’s an Old Man. To further pour salt in the wound, Zibby’s friend, Vanessa (Ali Ahn) asks Jesse when he graduated. When he says it was in the nineties, Vanessa chortles and points out that she and Zibby were born then. Ouch.
Jesse and Zibby get to know each other over coffee the next day, and she gives him a mix CD of classical music. I don’t want to say she’s pushy per se, but she has her own ideas, and she’s not shy about expressing them. She thinks she and Jesse should try hugging, so they hug. She’s the one giving him music. She thinks they should write each other, so they write.
These two bond over the kinds of thoughts that only seem to work on paper. Jesse begins to feel conscious and present where he is instead of merely existing. Zibby is not only a worthy penpal, but she gives Jesse a chance to be what he wasn’t in college. He starts to wonder if a relationship could work, even though Zibby is nineteen.
It’s only a matter of time before Jesse and Zibby see each other again. Zibby does the inviting, of course, and in her mind, it’s a booty call. Jesse begins to wake up at this point, and senses he needs to be the adult. Right before he leaves, he tells no-holds-barred Zibby, “Guilt before we act is called morality.”
Which totally makes sense in light of what happens next. Heh. No. Put it this way: Jesse’s favorite professor at Ohio State is Dr. Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), pontificator of romantic poets and unapologetic cougar. She makes a simple basket of French fries seem uncomfortably dirty. Yeah, the movie goes there. It’s a rude awakening for Jesse, who suddenly sees the professor he idolized in a whole new light.
Maybe I was still buzzed on nostalgia when I went back to it, or maybe I was in a different place emotionally, but I enjoyed Liberal Arts more the second time around. Josh Radnor understands character development, which is unusual in Hollywood today, and about eighty percent of his film is thoughtful and well-paced.
That said, when the movie fumbles, it really fumbles, and it’s enough to make a person want to take a shower. Ugh, that Fairfield woman is seriously slutty. That, and Jesse levels any moral high ground he had with Zibby by doing what he had just told her he couldn’t do, only not with her. The story eventually recovers, but not very well. The fumble is so needless, too. The movie had real potential to be a nice, easy character study about coming to terms with being at different stages of life, and it just doesn’t get there.
College is a funny time, and going back can be exciting. I completely get why Radnor would want to shoot Liberal Arts at Kenyon–he makes his school look good, and he was probably overjoyed to be on the campus again. Too bad the movie chokes. Who knows, though, I may watch it now and then anyway just to be reminded of that day at Sac State. There’s something to be said for holding on to collegiate spirit and enthusiasm, as long as the present is the bigger priority.
Okay, thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Hasta luego…
Liberal Arts is available on DVD from Amazon.