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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A man romances his alma mater in Liberal Arts
Nostalgia 101
on
Olsen and Radnor study one another.
Olsen and Radnor study one another.

On the topic of liberal education, there's disagreement. Skeptics, including anxious parents, worry that English majors aren't prepared for rewarding careers. Proponents counter that liberal-arts disciplines develop useful professional skills, especially critical thinking.

The career debate misses the point. As an English major in college, I learned to love and admire A Passage to India, Middlemarch, Life of Johnson. I can't say reading these books advanced my career, and that doesn't matter. I've long believed that college is a precious opportunity to read important books and discuss complex ideas. After college, there are many fewer opportunities.

A character makes exactly this case in Liberal Arts, which centers on a 35-year-old man named Jesse. He's nostalgic for his time as an English and history major at an unnamed Ohio college. This material resonates with me, and I like this poignant romantic comedy written and directed by Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame.

Radnor risked preciousness or worse in making a film in which someone screams, "I LOVE BOOKS!!!" And it's true that mainly we see only caricatures of people living the life of the mind. They hang out in bookstores and read while they're running errands, but other than a smug evisceration of a certain popular vampire novel, we don't hear much about what they're reading.

There are multiple stories. In the main one, Jesse (Radnor), a New York City college adviser, visits his alma mater for the retirement party of Peter, a favorite professor (Richard Jenkins, who's now officially my favorite character actor on the strength of his work here and in Cabin in the Woods).

On campus, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old student. They begin an epistolary flirtation via handwritten letters, which are heard in voiceovers. I cringed at Jesse's overwritten notes, having produced a few of those myself. Olsen is well cast as this smart, ambitious young woman, but the film strikes patronizing notes as the romance unfolds.

Meanwhile, Peter regrets retiring, and Jesse has a funny, tense encounter with an English professor (Allison Janney) whose course he loved. Jesse also gets advice from a young hippie sage (an amusing Zac Efron) and befriends a troubled student (John Magaro) with a shared passion for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The overlapping plotlines remind me of TV shows, and not in a good way.

That last subplot is particularly ungainly, but I embrace it, because it conveys a grim message that is good to hear. It's a warning to exquisitely tortured young intellectuals: If you seek to emulate David Foster Wallace, be careful, because what happened to him is really sad. Amen.

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