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Movie Reviews

Liberal Arts



Reviewer:Craig Williams

Director: Josh Radnor

Stars: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen and Zac Efron

Released: 4th October 2012

Liberal Arts is an erudite college-set romantic comedy from actor-writer-director Josh Radnor, star of US sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It’s a quantum leap from Radnor’s directorial debut happythankyoumoreplease and is a warm and considered paean to academia which manages to be both an uplifting crowd-pleaser as well as a passionate love letter to the arts.

Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York, coping with the drudgery of his job by consuming literature at a furious pace. He receives an invitation to a retirement party for his old professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) taking place at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. At a party, Peter introduces Jesse to his friend’s daughter, 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a theatre improvisation student at the college. Despite their age difference, there’s an immediate spark between the pair. After Jesse returns to New York, they begin writing letters to each other. It soon becomes clear that they are falling in love.

The real strength of Liberal Arts is the way it looks at the fresh promise of undergraduate life and how that promise can cast a long shadow over one’s subsequent working life. Zibby is still a part of a world where in-depth conversations about literature and philosophy are de rigueur, whereas Jesse isn’t, and he misses it. He was at his happiest wandering around the college grounds with a book in his hands; the days of endless possibilities. Indeed, the scenes where Jesse walks around his old campus are shot with an almost rapturous glow. The correspondence between the pair allows Jesse to reconnect with the things that are important to him that he cannot easily assimilate into his post-college life. By presenting two similar characters at very different stages in their lives, Radnor invites us to consider what you take with you into adulthood and what it really means to grow up.

Countless films have documented the pressures of being an artist and what gets sacrificed for art. But what of the art lovers? Does the artistic temperament not flow through the serious reader as well as the writer? Liberal Arts has an intuitive understanding of what it’s like to live in the real world but have the arts as a central force in your life. The literary and cultural references are deployed at regular intervals, but they do not represent the empty posturing of films like Garden State; they serve to demonstrate that this is how these characters learned how to live. It’s to Radnor’s credit that these references do not end up alienating the wider audience; Liberal Arts is, at heart, a simple love story about growing up.

Both leads are excellent and they clearly take delight in each other’s company. There’s a real sense of chemistry between Radnor and Olsen, so much so that it’s easy to forget the sixteen years age difference between their characters. Liberal Arts also boasts a strong supporting cast. Jenkins is typically droll as the reluctant retiree and Zac Efron is a lot of fun as the campus hippie. But the scene-stealer is Alison Janney giving a deliciously acerbic performance as Jesse’s former poetry professor and role model.

Whilst they inevitably break up the narrative drive somewhat, the detours involving the supporting characters provide a more complete picture of campus life and, perhaps more importantly, of Jesse. They offer incisive snapshots of the gap between Jesse the undergraduate and Jesse the adult. This aspect is shown most prominently through Dean (John Magaro), a bookish and painfully shy student beset by anxiety. Jesse sees aspects of his old self in Dean, and it leads to a particularly moving scene concerning the deceased writer David Foster Wallace, a hero to them both.

Liberal Arts is the kind of film that will really strike a chord with some people. Personally, I have not related more to a film this year. It celebrates love and literature in the most warm and unpretentious way while making some genuinely poignant observations about the blurred lines between youth and adulthood. It’s difficult not to get swept up in its charm.

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