The Dallas International Film Festival opened Thursday with a gala and screening of Liberal Arts at the gorgeous Majestic Theatre downtown. Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother wrote, directed and stars in the film as 35-year-old Jesse, who goes back to his old college to honor his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) at his retirement party. There Jesse reconnects with his other favorite professor (Allison Janney), befriends a depressed David Foster Wallace fan (John Magaro, and also, is there any other kind?) and has a deep connection with 19-year-old Zibby, played by a luminous Elizabeth Olsen.
Radnor is forthright in dealing with the ick factor of a 35-year-old man's contemplating a romantic relationship with a 19-year-old. After a friendly penpalship holds the promise and threat of something more, Jesse sits down at his desk with a pen and paper and attempts to use math to solve his moral quandary. "When I Was 19, She Was 3. When I Was 16, She Was 0," he writes, looking horrified. Then: "When I Am 86, She Will Be 70," he adds, his expression turning optimistic. It's a great little scene that addresses with economy and wit the weirdness inherent in the film's central relationship. Radnor isn't taking the issue lightly, and neither is Jesse. The hesitance and thoughtfulness of both writer and character make the hefty age difference much more digestible.
Radnor's performance on the whole is very good. He's charming and grounded. He comes across most significantly as someone who is respectful of other characters and other actors. Jesse seems like a good listener, a good person. Radnor shines by letting the other performers in his scenes take the obstreperous emotion while he reacts with subtlety. It's not the glamorous role - he leaves the glamour for his co-stars who wear the mantle with ease. Olsen is bright and lovely as a college sophomore emotionally and intellectually ahead of her peers. Jenkins, whose character is a little superfluous, is still great as always as a retiring professor desperate to remain relevant. And Janney is this bitchy, sexy blitzkrieg who blows through the film, taking no prisoners.
Zac Efron's in the film as well, playing a New Age hippie who intersects with Jesse's life when he least expects it. Efron's funny in the role, but his scenes seem nonessential. Much of the film does, unfortunately. Liberal Arts offers a few too many story threads. It's not that the film is too long, but it's unfocused. Some of the most important scenes lose impact, diluted by story surplus. The film is barefacedly sentimental, and I don't mind that. Jesse's all-encompassing love of books, his earnest nostalgia for college and ultimately his loneliness are plainly portrayed and keenly felt.
But Liberal Arts never manages to turn these great performances and familiar dilemmas into something substantial. The film almost gets there; it offers quick glimpses of substance in between the sweet levity. I would almost rather watch a film about Jesse attempting to relate to Dean, the bipolar Wallace fan, than see another movie where an overly self-reflective man climbs out of his rut with the help of an impetuous, bright-eyed young woman. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a film that is merely sweet and pleasant. There are a few laughs - not enough, but a few. Radnor directs with confidence; it's nicely shot and he knows how to work with his cast. But Liberal Arts could be a film that sticks, and it almost does, but it never quite reaches that level of consequence.