Coming-of-age, the acceptance of age, the complete denial of age and struggling with the responsibilities that come with age; in one way or another, Liberal Arts will strike a familiar chord with audiences. But familiarity, in this case, results in a rather mundane romantic dramedy.
focuses on the brutal truth associated with college: studies and majors are now less about passion than they are practicality. For Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor, also the writer and director), college wasn’t about preparation for employment but an opportunity to explore what he loved most: literature. The problem is, a background in literature basically means nothing out in the real world. A liberal arts education is not liberating, but asphyxiating.
The film opens with a mock interview of Jesse explaining the wonders and joys of being a university admissions counselor. His enthusiasm for his job is obviously
transparent. He’s as convincing as a prison inmate advocating life behind bars is not so bad.
A quick slice of his life during the first few minutes of the film reveals his aptitude to bad luck and his security in apathy. Residing in New York City, Jesse’s dirty
clothes are stolen at a laundromat,
followed by a break-up with his girlfriend back at his apartment. He seems
more concerned about the stolen laundry than his girlfriend moving out.
Jesse then receives a phone call that sparks a
small bit of interest. One of his favorite professors, Peter Hoberg (Richard
Jenkins), would like him to attend his honorary
retirement dinner at his alma mater. It’s just the excuse Jesse needs to return
to the place where he believes he had the best years of his life.
What he doesn’t realize, though, is that nostalgia can be just as harmful as it is comforting. Jesse anticipates his visit will be a walk down memory lane reminiscing about the “good ole days.” He literally rolls in the grass the minute he steps on campus and watches undergraduates as if they’re living in
heaven on earth.
In his two-day visit, Jesse forms various relationships that ultimately influence him to get over his identity crisis and face the fact that he’s 35. There’s his jaded and deeply cynical Romantics professor, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney); Peter, who unconvincingly insists that retirement is something he accepts with open arms; Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an intelligent and refreshingly outgoing college sophomore; Dean (John Magaro), a brilliant student fresh off of a psychotic breakdown who lingers around the border of suicidal; and Nat (the sort of funny Zac Efron), who is much like the guy you would see playing Hacky Sack in the quad pledging his devotion to universal peace, love and harmony.
But it’s his time spent with Zibby that means the most to him. Jesse
sees Zibby as an “old soul,” more so to justify his relationship with a
girl who is 16 years younger than he is. Hypocritically, he flips out at the first sign of
maturity incompatibility—the catalyst being Zibby’s guilty pleasure of teen vampire novels, which
he finds downright revolting. He takes what he believes as flawed taste as a personal
insult to not only him, but highbrow lit fans as a whole. His
snobbery causes him to realize why they seem so compatible: it’s not that Zibby is wise beyond
her years, but that he is stunted.
relationships with any and all characters collectively are completely
narcissistic in nature, and he’s even reckless of others’ emotions. Specifically with Zibby, he relishes in her fascination with him without thinking about what the relationship means to her romantically. Eventually, his friendship backfires.
Zibby is a perfect fit for Olsen, an up-and-coming actress who has yet to tarnish her reputable talent with a teenage-wasteland film. Her performance seamlessly mirrors what is easily believed to be her personality in real life, which
comes off as naïve and likeable.
Radnor as the premature mid-life crisis victim also comes off as an actor playing himself as well, but it’s a character not interesting enough to watch a whole movie about. Jesse could be one of millions of thirty-something Americans lost in the in-betweens of a job and life-long career. It’s relatable. Perfectly put by Peter, “Nobody feels like an adult. That’s the world’s dirty little secret.” Jesse’s crisis is nothing out of the ordinary, and he as a person is in no way extraordinary. So what’s the draw? There isn’t one.
The best moments in the film are the occasional, but almost contrived, poetic lines by each of Jesse’s mentors. Radnor is a talented writer, that’s for certain, but his aptitude for writing
is better proven in his debut film Happythankyoumoreplease. Understandably, Liberal Arts probably reads great on paper, but fails to have any life on-screen. Impressive writing doesn’t always mean impressive films, and Liberal Arts is proof of that.
In short, Liberal Arts is just plain ordinary. If it weren’t for the hilariously misanthropic Professor Fairfield and occasional poignant lines, it would be pointless.
Liberal Arts is now playing at The Landmark and Sundance Sunset Cinemas.
For more information, visit the film’s official website.