Josh Radnor as Jesse
Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby
Richard Jenkins as Prof. Hoberg
Allison Janney as Prof. Fairfield
Zac Efron as Nat
In select theaters October 5
Opens October 26 at Main Art Theatre
Jesse (Radnor) is a 35 year old admissions counselor. With his job unsatisfying and his relationship broken up, he slogs through every day unhappy with his life, except when it comes to books; he’s always reading. His only passion in life is the written word. Day in and day out – books, books, books.
One day he gets a call from a former professor (Jenkins), who asks Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner. When Jesse visits the professor, he meets friends of the professor, as well as his 19 year old daughter, Zibby (Olsen). He is freshly surprised at her youthful exuberance. Jesse then proceeds to walk the campus, checking out all of his old haunts, caught up in the “I wish I were back here” nostalgia. Walking at night he meets Nat (Efron), a hippie kid just hanging out. After a brief conversation and Nat’s insisting, they crash a party – Jesse is clearly the fish out of water here. When asked by a student, “When did you go here?” he responds, “The 90’s.” The student and her friend counter with, “We were born in the 90’s.”
At the party he runs into Zibby, and after a quick exchange they agree to meet for coffee the next day. From that point, they begin an awkward friendship and agree to keep in touch, as Jesse is going back to New York. Over a period of time they keep in touch with each other the old-fashioned way – by writing letters. Zibby has introduced Jesse to the world of classical music through a CD mix she made for him, and it has changed his daily outlook. The mundane grind of things doesn’t seem so bad through the filter of Massenet and Beethoven (it sure made the movie better for a few minutes). He shares his passion of books with her, recommending titles to read. When Zibby sends a letter expressing that they must see each other, Jesse goes back to campus hoping to continue whatever “this” is. Between the age difference he is still trying to handle and his awkwardness coping with his life in limbo, Jesse is unsure of everything. He has a lot of decisions to make, including whether or not to take their relationship to the next level.
Written, produced, and directed by Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), “Liberal Arts” is a truly self-indulgent portrait; the film was even shot at Radnor’s Alma Mater. The whole thing plays like a bad copy of a Woody Allen film. If you’re going to pull off the whole bagel on a plate full of onion rolls, no one understands me, I’m so deep yet alone thing, you need to study the work of the only person who has raised that to an art form, and that’s Woody. Radnor’s character here is so two-dimensional if he stood next to a white wall, he would disappear, but you’d probably still hear the whining. His character is so tied up in poetry, hearts and flowers, he has kept himself isolated in a bubble, lonely, and out of touch. There are times you really want to give him that Gibb’s “NCIS” smack across the back of the head.
The saving graces of this film are the cast members: Elizabeth Olsen is exuberant, fresh, and enthusiastic! Zac Efron is a joy to watch as a hippie philosopher with a much needed dose of Zen for Jesse – too bad he only has a couple small scenes. Allison Janney plays a sassy, brassy former professor of Jesse and gives him a much, much needed reality check. Too bad it comes much later in the film, as it could have saved us some time. This movie would have been better if it had been a Woody Allen film. I certainly would have enjoyed it a lot more.
My recommendation: rent “Annie Hall.” But if you’re into, “Waaaa! Life didn’t turn out like I thought it would. Waaah! Why can’t I function in the real world? Why did I leave college?”, then this is the flick for you. Other than that, you might have a more entertaining time watching paint dry.