This is the sophomore effort of writer, director, and star Josh Radnor (best known for his role as Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother). His first film, Happythankyoumoreplease, was fine but forgettable. But whatever mistakes he made there he learned from to make his next movie.
Liberal Arts centers around Jesse Fisher (Radnor). He works in college admissions for a NYC university. He is bored in his job, has been dumped by his girlfriend, and has lost his affection for the Big Apple. But then his old college professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to his retirement party. Eager to get out of the city, he goes to an idyllic college campus to see is friend. But there he meets Zibby (an amazing Elizabeth Olson), a 19-year-old Sophomore with the 35-year-old Jesse. Their friendship is clearly filled with mutual attraction and the rest of the film explores the possibility of romance filling this 16-year gap.
This movie could have easily been a silly comedy about aging hipsters finding hot young chicks. But Radnor wisely doesn't do that. The script works so well because it understands bot Jesse's and Zibby's worlds. Jesse has been beaten down by life and Zibby brings him a sense of rejuvenation, even in how he looks at music and NYC. She lives life by her Improv Class ethic: say yes to everything. And Zibby sees in Jesse an emotional maturity and worldly experience that she finds lacking in all other boys her age.
And yet that is also the main obstacle to their closeness. Jesse is young enough and Zibby is mature enough for the potential romance to not come off as too creepy, so that is not the problem. The issue is life experience. Zibby looks at the world the way she does because she has only experienced college life and not "the real world." And this is a bigger problem than you might think.
Radnor's script is an excellent mediation on college life from someone who has moved on. At first it seems like he idealizes it. He moves you from the drab and claustrophobic city to the clean, green lawns of college. He talks about how awesome this time of life is: "You can read books because you want to... You can tell people you're a poet and they won't punch you in the face."
But the more time he spends there, Radnor reminds us that college is like a bridge: it is a place to pass through, not a place to stay. A liberal arts education has stunted some of his masculinity and given him a "gooey heart." He lacks a lot of forward direction and assertiveness, which comes from the fact that college is not the real world. Peter, once retired, has no idea how to function well because he spent all his time in academia.
A script in an independent movie like this often tries to make itself stand out by attempting dialogue that is profound and insightful. And surprisingly, Radnor succeeds. When Peter finds out about Jesse's amorous intentions towards Zibby, the old retiring professor says that "You know how old I feel? 19. But I'm not 19. That's life's dirty little secret: no one feels like an adult." When confronted with a difficult moral choice, someone tells Jesse that he's just letting guilt get in the way. He responds "If you feel guilt before you do something, it's called 'morality.'"
And I do have to say that when the issue of sex comes up, it is handled with more maturity and care than most Hollywood movies around (of course later in the movie, this point is trampled on). But in the scene where the characters have to talk about sex and its emotional consequences, it does so with some insight I did not expect.
The performances are also fantastic. Elizabeth Olsen should have been nominated for something. One of the reasons the chemistry between the 2 main characters works so well is that she speaks like an old soul in a young frame. She stands out from her peers. But she never lets you forget the shortcomings of her youth. Every scene she is in is filled with her charisma. And Radnor ups his game by working with her. There is a scene at the exact center of the movie between the two of them that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop the DVD. And it worked so well because of how each of them played off of each other. Jenkins is also very good in his achingly lonely Peter whose closest friend is a former student who graduated years ago. Allison Janey also does a nice turn as a heartless professor of the Romantic poetry and Zac Effron as a mysterious stranger.
The film does veer into some unnecessary sub-plots that feel a little forced. I did check out the deleted scenes and Radnor was very smart to cut out an entire supporting character from the movie in order to streamline the story. And at the beginning of the movie, when Peter begins to idealize his early days and semi-communist leanings, I was prepared for class warfare diatribe that never manifested. Liberal Arts never gets preachy. It lets you spend time with this 3-dimensional characters and lets you decide if they made the right decisions about life.
When the movie was finished I found myself moved and delighted. It sounds condescending to say that it was "nice" movie. But how pleasant it is to spend 90 minutes enjoying a nice story.
4 out of 5 stars