Liberal Arts Movie Review

My Review of Liberal Arts
Josh Radnor‘s debut film Happythankyoumoreplease flipped the hipster/indie rom-com formula on its head in the most endearing of ways. Liberal Arts, his sophomore effort as writer-director-stars, stumbles in ways his debut did not, occasionally treading too close to contrived territory but ultimately delivering an enjoyable film.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions counselor in New York, who gets a call from his favorite college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asking if he’ll come back to campus and speak at the professor’s retirement party. And so begins the nostalgic trip that ultimately turns out to be a progression through a regression, if you follow.

On this jaunt, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore with whom he forms an unlikely connection once she gives him a mix CD of classical music from a survey class she took that “changed her life” by her own admission (groan). Before you roll your eyes at the predictability of it, this sentiment is at the core of the bookishness bend of Liberal Arts. Radnor does an amazing job of portraying the wide-eyed intellectual revelry that still remains the best part about college. As Jesse tells Dean (John Magaro), a student less enthusiastic about the college life than him, “it’s the only time you get to do this. Sit around, read books all day, have great conversations about ideas. People out in the world… they are not really doing that.”
The romance between Jesse and Zibby blossoms through the old-fashioned medium of writing letters to each other (in line with Jesse’s love affair with the British Romantics) and make for some light, mirthful moments. As it develops, however, the coming-of-age issues bring about a pretty strong element of discomfort, if not downright cringe-inducing dialogue, when Zibby wants to take their relationship into intimate territory. Oddly enough, once the absurdity of falling for a girl 16 years his junior dawns on Jesse, does he realize Zibby may not be the only one with some growing up to do and that he needs to get back to adulthood.
The comedic elements in Liberal Arts are to be found in some interesting places–such as Zac Efron’s turn as a tree-hugging hippie guru who spouts aphorisms like “There is no reason to be afraid because everything is OK.” Jesse’s friendship with Dean, the depressed student writer he meets at the college, also allows Radnor to hash out the theme of Liberal Arts: as great as college is, growing up is not all that bad either. Their interaction yields some of the more clever lines from the film: “I am taking you off post-modernists. There are these vampire books. They will empty your mind completely.”
Jesse’s line about “stumbling into something like contentment” rings especially true of adulthood. Maybe not all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s necessarily cause for nostalgia’ing one’s college years as the only good time in one’s life. Radnor’s dialogue comes off fairly ham-handed at times, but the message is definitely a positive one.

 If one can get past the romantic relationship [funny, since this is supposedly a rom-com] which is too cringe-inducing at times, the supporting roles are compelling and amusing in a droll sort of way. Radnor has a knack for imbuing his films with enough nerdishness to appeal to the English majors in all of us and as such, his films are well…heart-warming while avoiding maudlin territory for the most part, even if he does tread dangerously close to it occasionally.

Kumare Movie Review

My review of the movie Kumare
At first glance, Kumare, a documentary that bills itself as “the true story of a false prophet,” appears take a page out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative oeuvre. How pleasantly surprising that this is not the case. Not only is Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist, significantly bolder in riling up a veritable hornet’s nest of hot-button issues, especially the big R-eligion, but he does away with borderline-mean-spirited snark in favor of a thoughtful presentation of a very relevant and timely social experiment.
Kumare is an inquiry into the nature of faith. Jersey-born, Brooklyn film maker Vikram Gandhi sets out to find out if there is a real-deal guru out there by impersonating one. His travels through India and study of religion in college do not bring him any closer to answers and instead reaffirm the idea that the gurus he encounters are egocentric, profit-minded, interested only in “out-guruing one another,” self-aggrandizing, and downright manipulative. He recalls the peacefulness emanating from his Grandma when she prayed and wonders about the source of that feeling. Thus, Kumare is born. Growing out his hair and beard, donning orange robes and an ornate walking staff, Gandhi transforms himself into a guru, modeling his accent after his Grandma’s. As any spiritual leader worth his salt, he heads into the desert. Phoenix, Arizona, to be precise. 

Kumare refreshingly works on two levels—in one sense, it pokes fun of the power of hype in building a mythos and get followers by merely surrounding oneself with the trappings of spiritualism—namely yoga moves, vague-sounding-enough platitudes, and a publicist. At the same time, however, Gandhi has clearly done his homework. Before he invents his made-up yoga hand-wind-milling bogus poses, he ostensibly has learned the real ones. His blue light meditation seems to have some roots in visualization meditation techniques. In other words, to learn how to be fake, he has to learn what passes for real first?
What shines through most in the film is that instead of being an expose on the dark underside of America’s billion-dollar-industry quest for spirituality-in-a-box quick fixes [the yoga “industry” as one major example], it is ultimately a story about humans and our basic search for a connection. Kumare’s disciples are people one could relate to—a death penalty attorney, a single mom with an empty nest syndrome, and a former cocaine addict/real estate agent. And like everyday people, they are looking for someone “with knowledge” to be the barometer/sign post for their own life’s direction. In other words, they need someone to tell them what to do and more importantly, make them believe that he knows more than they do so they feel confident in following his advice. There is the rub—Kumare’s ultimate message, revealed on his “The Great Unveiling Day,” is that the guru is within all of us. While not particularly ground-breaking, it is nevertheless, an often forgotten mantra. Instead of focusing on the more selfish, “just do what you want,” aspect of it, however, it is more along the lines of, “nobody knows much about anything, even if he calls himself a guru. Maybe especially so.”
To Gandhi’s credit, while the movie features some chuckle-worthy moments [as in when he meets a woman who espouse the visualization technique of making your wishes come true by gluing pictures of cars and money on her “desire board”], it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative as it could have considering its snake oil salesman premise. There are also a couple of jabs in the film at the cultural appropriation nuances that come along with the West’s fascination with India and its yogic culture—as in, Kumare is revered by virtue of his being from India alone [as opposed to an American-born Indian from Jersey].
Gandhi genuinely starts caring for his “followers,” and ends up having a positive impact on their lives. His own journey throughout the film is also very compelling. Ultimately, the phrase “fumbling toward ecstasy” rings true. His disciples really just need someone to listen to them and pay attention and as such, Kumare is a trenchant commentary on the disenfranchisement that is pervasive throughout society and the distance between people that pushes them to seek that special contact and meaning that could just as easily come from another human being or oneself from a more mystical source.