Liberal Arts (United States, 2012)September 21, 2012
Liberal Arts is a parfait - a light, enjoyable concoction that goes down easily but doesn't linger. The movie is great "in the moment" but may be difficult to recall with any specificity after time has elapsed. The film has a friendly, sophisticated sit-com tone, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that Josh Radnor, the star/writer/director, is best known for How I Met Your Mother, which began its long run in 2005. Liberal Arts is a nostalgia-tinged look back at college perhaps not as it really was but as we'd like to remember it being. And, despite occasionally sharp dialogue and some brilliantly written scenes, the film as a whole never transcends "pleasant."
To his credit, although Radnor plays the lead character, he never forces the camera to linger on him to the detriment of his co-stars. His portrayal remains low key and his screenplay gives them the best lines and strongest moments. There are three noteworthy performances: Elizabeth Olsen, who plays college sophomore Zibby; Richard Jenkins as retiring professor Peter Hoberg; and Allison Janney essaying an unromantic Romantics professor. Radnor is Jesse Fisher, a bored admissions officer at a New York university who returns to his alma mater to pay farewell to Hoberg. At age 35, he has now spent three times as much time in post-college life as he did on campus, but that doesn't stop him from becoming seduced by the atmosphere and falling for 19-year old Zibby, a potential relationship that shocks and distresses Professor Hoberg.
This is the third film in which I have noticed Elizabeth Olsen (following Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House) and the consistency of the quality of her work shows her to be a serious actress. It would be surprising if she doesn't earn an Oscar nomination in the near future. (She should have gotten one for MMMM.) Radnor has the most screen time and Jesse travels the most meaningful character arc, but the energy level increases whenever Olsen is on screen. The movie's two best sequences - an argument over the merits of Twilight (the book) and a scene in which Zibby's admission of virginity freaks out Jesse - feature her.
Although there is a romantic element to Liberal Arts, it's not a love story. Jesse and Zibby never progress past the "romantic friendship" stage. They're ships passing in the night, and they know it, even if there are sparks. And there's a 16-year age gap. (Zibby's roommate to Jesse: "When did you graduate." Jesse: "In the'90s." Roommate: "Cool. We were born in the '90s!") It doesn't mean much to Zibby (or at least she claims it doesn't) but, after a heart-to-heart with Hoberg about how "feeling 19 inside" doesn't mean you're still 19 on the outside, Jesse is uncomfortable. Liberal Arts is about how a brief return to college re-ignites something in Jesse that allows him to escape from the rut in which he has become entrenched.
Liberal Arts offers no deep insights, but it's enjoyable because the script is smart enough that one doesn't have to feel embarrassed for liking it. There are a couple of missteps along the way. Jesse's off-the-wall "muse," a free-spirit played by Zac Efron, feels contrived. And the manic-depressive who captures Jesse's sympathy is not sufficiently fleshed out for us to care about him. The central trio - Jesse, Zibby, and Radnor - are nicely developed and skew believable. In the end, we find ourselves caring about them. Liberal Arts probably represents wish fulfillment on Radnor's part (it was filmed on the campus of his real-life alma mater), but it's not a bad wish and I was pleased to share in it for about 90 minutes.
Liberal Arts (United States, 2012)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Josh Radnor
Cinematography: Seamus Tierney
Music: Ben Toth