out of Five
Running time: 95
Warm hearted and well written, this is a charming coming of middle-age comedy with terrific performances from Radnor and Olsen.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Josh Radnor (best known over here for his lead role on TV's How I Met Your Mother), Liberal Arts stars Radnor as Jesse, a bookish, 35 year old college admissions advisor in New York, who jumps at the chance to return to his old university in Ohio when his former professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to give a speech at his retirement dinner. During the weekend, Jesse meets 19 year old theatre student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) - the daughter of two of Peter's friends – and the pair strike up a friendship, which ends with Zibby sending Jesse away with a CD of classical music and a promise to send her a hand-written letter.
After a lengthy exchange of letters, Zibby invites Jesse back to visit her again but Jesse worries about their age difference when she makes her romantic intentions clear. Meanwhile, he has various other college encounters with a zen-like slacker (Zac Efron), a depressed literature student (John Magaro) and his former English professor (Allison Janney).
Radnor makes a charming, likeable lead and he has strong chemistry with Olsen, Magaro and Jenkins. Olsen is equally good, keeping Zibby firmly away from Manic Pixie Dream Girl-style indie clichés, although she is slightly too mature for the part, to the point where a late-blooming plot revelation doesn't quite convince.
There's also terrific support from Jenkins and particularly Janney, who's laugh-out loud funny as the lusty lit professor, though Efron is less convincing as funny hat-wearing hanger-on Nat and his scenes don't quite hit the right tone.
The warm hearted script has a nice line in misty-eyed nostalgia (while acknowledging that that's not necessarily a good thing) and convincingly portrays the excitement of connecting with somebody new while also exploring the coming-of-middle-age theme via Jenkins' character's imparted secret that “nobody ever feels like an adult.”
Similarly, the dialogue is frequently funny and the letter sequences (which could have been excruciating) are nicely handled.
That said, there are a couple of moments that feel contrived and Radnor doesn't quite know when to end the film, with the last five minutes or so being essentially superfluous, though neither of those things really detract from the overall enjoyment.
Liberal Arts is an enjoyable, well-written comedy that marks Radnor out as a Woody Allen-style acting-writing-directing talent to watch. Recommended.