Smart, funny college-nostalgia comedy ‘Liberal Arts’ makes the grade
As Thomas Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again. According to Josh Radnor, in his smart, entertaining comedy Liberal Arts, you can’t go back to college again, either. Whether or not you should want to is the driving force that propels Radnor’s thoughtful, funny film, as the ferment of campus life, with all its drama, romance, and terror, where Wolfe and succeeding generations of literary mentors hold such sway, is re-examined by a protagonist in his 30s who’s still having a hard time coming of age.
TV sitcom star Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) wrote and directed the film, shooting it mostly at small, bucolic Kenyon College in Ohio, his own alma mater. Radnor also stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions counselor at an unnamed university in New York City. By now, he performs his job pretty much by rote; he walks the city streets with his nose in a book, and his current girlfriend is moving out, with little apparent resistance from him. (“It’s not my job to make you feel good about yourself anymore,” is her parting shot.)
Jesse is uncertain at first when he gets a call from his “favorite commie leftist” history professor from college, Peter (Richard Jenkins), who’s about to retire after 37 years, inviting Jesse to the farewell party. But when he does go back, he’s immediately seduced by his fond memories of college life—rolling in the grass, sharing life-changing books, hanging out with mystical, zoned-out hippie dude, Nat (a terrific and unrecognizable Zac Efron). Jesse is especially smitten with the romantic idea of “infinite choices in front of you” —before, inevitably, “life happens.”
In this mood, he meets and bonds with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old coed whose parents are also friends of Peter’s. She gives him a CD mix of classical music she’s just discovered in a class, which (in a lovely montage) revitalizes the way he sees the city, back in New York. They begin writing each other real ink-and-paper letters, a correspondence of ideas that energizes both of their lives. In spite of the age difference (when Jesse says he went to their college back in the ’90s, Zibby’s girlfriend chirps, “That’s when we were born!”), when Zibby invites him to come visit her again, Jesse goes.
Within this simple storyline, Radnor crafts an elegant, witty, and recognizably real meditation on growing up, letting go, and self-discovery. As usual, Olsen is persuasive and down-to-earth as Zibby. Mature in so many ways, yet still discovering so much of life for the first time, she’s radiant in her self possession, laughing off his aversion to her favorite Twilight-like vampire novel (she shrugs that it made her “happy” and calls him a snob; he views its popularity as the end of civilization). Fresh, but certainly no Lolita, she seems like an almost plausible match for Jesse; yet when they hug, it’s also clear he’s embracing his own former youthful idealism.
Meanwhile, filmmaker Radnor surrounds Jesse with alternative views on college life. John Magaro is wonderful in a couple of scenes as Dean, a bookish misfit who astonishes Jesse by confessing he’s “aggressively unhappy” at school, but feels compelled to stay because his folks are so proud that he’s there. The ever-reliable Allison Janney pops up in a very wry turn as a snarky, veteran Romantic English Lit professor (she was Jesse’s favorite teacher) whose life has become the opposite of romantic. Disaffected Peter experiences a momentary bout of retiree’s regret, before he comes to terms with his decision, and tells Jesse, “Any place you don’t leave is a prison.”
Radnor’s dialogue is brisk and funny. The evolving friendship between Jesse and Zibby, in particular, is handled with just the right mix of warmth, longing, delicacy and humor, as both come to understand how they’re projecting their idealized selves onto the other. As an actor, Radnor is an appealingly life-sized presence whose journey out of the past and into his own future both centers and propels this engaging film.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, and Allison Janney.
Written and directed by Josh Radnor. An IFC Films release. Not rated. 97 minutes.