Review: Liberal Arts

For many, life didn’t get much better than college. It was the first taste of real semi-independence. Everyone had great nicknames, was at their physical peak without having to work for it and the epic memories created would be the stuff of legends that would only grow through the years to come.

Then the post-college world sets in and the realities of boring 9 to 5 jobs set in making you yearn even more for those carefree days. That’s the premise of “Liberal Arts,” a comedic romance drama that comes tantalizingly close to reaching its potential, but a few ill-advised missteps keep it from passing with honors.

Jesse (How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor, who also wrote the screenplay and directs), is a 35-year-old working in college admissions for a New York university. Big city life is rough and he finds solace retreating in the pages of classic literature. That wasn’t an issue at his Ohio university, where he was close friends with his favorite professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins, The Cabin in the Woods), who invites Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner.

Happy to return to familiar surroundings, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an easygoing drama student. Radnor neatly spins the cliché take on the stuffy guy falling for the carefree girl by explaining it away due to the age difference. Olsen breezily meets the dual challenge of the role in making Zibby seem like fun and wiser than her 19-years while still immature in other regards.

Despite the age difference, they click and are soon trading letters, musical recommendations and connecting in a way that makes Jesse see New York in a different light. Radnor and Olsen’s chemistry feels genuine and fittingly awkward. Radnor occasionally reverts to his acting comfort zone and becomes his “HIMYM” character Ted Mosby rather than making Jesse feel like a completely fresh character.

Radnor’s directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and he has a solid control behind the camera. He shot the majority of the film at his alma mater Kenyon College in Ohio and his familiarity with the best angles and perspectives plays out naturally without him needing to be showy.

liberal arts review -josh-radnor-and-elizabeth-olsen-in-liberal-artsA subplot with Jesse’s fascination with his former British Romance professor, Judith Fairfield, (an appropriately detached Allison Janney) largely doesn’t work as Radnor writes her so unlikable it’s hard to see why Jesse seeks her approval. The subplot with Peter instantly second-guessing his retirement plan could work, but Radnor doesn’t give it enough time to develop. Not that he really needed to as Jesse and Zibby’s story doesn’t merit the need for other layers.

Radnor has two good movies crammed into one — a unique take on a May/December romance and a college graduate longing for the good old days back at his alma mater with its jaded faculty and eccentric students like Nat (Zac Efron in a fun cameo).

You can appreciate Radnor seeking extra credit, but like the students in the film, had he committed to a one focus, he would have had a much stronger and engaging film that could have been worthy of high honors.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Photo Credit: Kevin Moss/ IFC Films

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