When 37 year old Jesse (Josh Radnor) is invited back to his alma mater to help farewell his retiring Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he meets 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). They connect and are drawn to each other, but Jesse is too conscious of the age difference and reluctant to take things too far.
Review by Louise Keller:
With literature depicted as a palette from which the canvas of life is drawn, Liberal Arts is a delightful road movie in which age forms roadblocks along the way. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) has directed and written an astonishingly good screenplay filled with delectable insights from three different age groups. He is also excellent as the film's protagonist who navigates between the symbolic roadblocks, ably portraying relevant vulnerabilities and fears. It's a story about making the transition from one point in your life to the next and being able to recognise where you fit in. Effects and consequences tug continually in this warm, likeable and often funny slice of life that rings true irrespective of which age group you fit.
In the film's opening scenes, we get a concise snapshot of the chaotic state of Jesse's (Radnor) life. His job is getting him down, his live-in girlfriend is leaving him and to top it off, his laundry is stolen from under his nose at his local New York Laundromat. Sunshine streams through the well-stocked bookshelf in his apartment as he takes the call from his old Prof. Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) in Ohio, asking him to attend his retirement dinner. It is in Ohio that Jesse meets three arts students, who not only make an impact, but change the way he sees himself.
Elizabeth Olsen, who dazzled in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is equally impressive here as Zibby, the impressionable student who loves classical music, handwritten letters and belongs to an improv group to whom the word 'no' is a dirty word. She is really an old-fashioned girl and her attraction to Jesse is immediate; he comes in a world to which she has not yet qualified. The way their relationship blossoms is credibly handled with Zibby doing all the running, as she asks the age-conscious Jesse not to over-think things. (The scene in which Jesse does the maths to contemplate their age difference is very funny.)
In smaller but important roles, Dean (John Magaro) is the troubled postmodernist book lover who feels as though he lives his life underwater (and is drowning) while Nat (Zac Efron in a surprising role) is the beanie-wearing, laid-back tree-lover who believes everything is okay. Allison Janney is a real scene stealer as Jesse's former British Romantic Literary class professor Prof. Judith Fairfield, who propositions him over fries and shares her cynical disappointment of life as the least romantic night of his life unfolds. That bedroom scene with all its pathos is unforgettable. And back in New York, there is Ana (Elizabeth Reaser), who loves books and who notices the literary tastes of some of her bookshop clientele.
I was so involved by the characters and their stories that it almost comes as a complete surprise when the film's resolution and the journey's end comes into view. Radnor's grasp of the intricate subtexts indicative of each age group is profound, making this much more than a highly enjoyable flit between the roadblocks of age.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This Josh Radnor 'project' has the hallmark of slow burning classic, starting deceptively uninvolving but gradually increasing in both interest and dramatic tension, with a tender emotional payoff that ripples across all the main characters. The built-in humour gives the film fizz, and is always genuine. Radnor clearly likes people and these characters are so well observed it's a real joy to meet them. He plays the central character, Jesse, a bachelor whose life in New York as a college recruiter is very grown up - but not all that fulfilled. He agrees to attend a farewell dinner for his second favourite Professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), back at his old alma mater in the verdant surrounds of Ohio.
When he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) their connection soon grows into a vibrant but platonic relationship forged through hand written letters and a shared love of books - spiced with a long argument about a vampire novel that Zibby loves but Jesse disparages. But then Zibby wants more than books.
Radnor's vision is beautifully realised in a screenplay with many layers of sometimes darkly comic angles about growing up, growing old and just growing. He plays Jesse with a well balanced mix of deference and determination; he is neither a wimp nor a brawny male. Elizabeth Olsen is terrific as Zibby, the 19 year old who sees herself as a mature young woman and feels ready for a romance with the older Jesse.
But when this relationship is interrupted, they both hit the rebound button - Jesse with a hilarious sequence involving his most favourite Professor (of romantic English literature, ironically) Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). Janney is sensational as the aloof, cynical 'grown up' whose lessons from life have left a bitter taste.
Zac Efron has a wonderfully zen role as a stranger in the park, and there is a moving subplot involving the insecure, troubled Dean (John Magaro).
Great cast, great performances, with Jenkins a standout, too, in a melancholy role, while Elizabeth Reaser is a lovely surprise as Ana, the librarian.
As Radnor draws together the whole set of emotional resolutions, we are asked to consider those same issues the characters find so hard to grapple with: age, maturity, youth and how we feel about ourselves when youth has passed. It's a bitter sweet film with plenty of fun, lots of heart and something to say (and to think about).
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LIBERAL ARTS (PG)
CAST: Elizabeth Olsen, Josh Radnor, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser, Richard Jenkins, Michael Weston, Kate Burton, John Magaro, Kristen Bush
PRODUCER: Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra, Jesse Hara, Lauren Munsch, Josh Radnor
DIRECTOR: Josh Radnor
SCRIPT: Josh Radnor
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Seamus Tierney
EDITOR: Michael R. Miller
MUSIC: Ben Toth
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jade Healy
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 11, 2012