Movie Review: Liberal Arts
Pros:Elizabeth Olsen's smile. Also, a few good gags and some genuine-sounding dialogue.
Cons:Try as the film might to convince you otherwise, you've seen this one before.
Liberal Arts thinks its got an edge, but its familiarity and eagerness to please mute its impact.
The old rule of dating states you can date anyone up to seven years either side of your age. Though hardly scientific, such rules are borne out of a certain practicality. After all, it’s not altogether wise for a man in his mid-30s to fall for a 19-year-old. That is, unless you’re Josh Radnor and you’re directing, producing and starring in Liberal Arts.
Is thirty-four too young for a mid-life crisis? It feels like that’s what Jesse (Radnor) is going through in Liberal Arts. Jesse’s in a job he doesn’t feel satisfied with, is single and is otherwise bored. As a lead, Radnor has honed his talents in How I Met Your Mother but Radnor the screenwriter doesn’t give Radnor the actor a whole lot to do. He’s a painfully regular guy, with some charm but no pressing crises. Liberal Arts seems to coast on that charm. Jesse returns to his (rather idealised) Midwestern college for the retirement party of an old friend and former tutor, Prof. Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). It’s there he runs into Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a literate and beautiful young student. Her youth and individual brand of charm hypnotize Jesse, and he finds himself falling for her. Yup, we’re firmly in Manic Pixie Dream Girl Territory. Try as Olsen might, there’s no other way of looking at her. She’s smart, but Twilight is her guilty pleasure. She has opinions. She has big blue saucer eyes. And her name’s Zibby! How many Zibbys can there possibly be?! She’s a MPDG, and no mistake!
From once they meet, the rest of the film is mostly Jesse trying to decide whether or not he can date Zibby. WIth that in mind, Liberal Arts is perfectly content to leave any plot mechanics by the wayside and let its charming kooky characters carry it. With lesser talent, the film would fall flat, but Radnor and Olsen’s chemistry keep it afloat. It’s not really revelatory, but it is at least palatably sweet. Jenkins adds a little gravitas, but he’s essentially your oracle of wisdom for the evening. Allison Janney fares better with a scene-stealing role as a vampy former lecturer of Jesse’s. There are laughs to be had on the way (a scene in which Jesse literally does the math is a howler), but you’ll be keeping a steady eye out for the impending reality check. For all its laughs and drama, some of it just seems thrown together. The presence of a moody college kid (John Magaro) and a stoner-cum-comic relief (Zac Efron) add little beyond padding.
Don’t go into Liberal Arts expecting revelation. It’s sweet but, Radnor and Olsen aside, it’s also pretty unremarkable. Radnor can and will make better films but, like his protagonist, he still has some growing up to do.