When 30-something Jesse returns to his alma mater for a professor’s retirement party, he falls for Zibby, a college student, and is faced with a powerful attraction that springs up between them.
In Australia, we view higher education as important, but I don’t believe we see it as the life-changing experience that Americans do. Not too many Australian films spring to mind that deal with university life. Are there others apart from LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES (1996)? By comparison, there are countless movies from the US that deal with the rite of passage that college represents for young Americans.
In LIBERAL ARTS, Jesse (Radnor) is an admissions officer in New York City. He is in his mid-thirties and we get the sense that he never left college. He is a bookish character who feels safer processing life intellectually rather than emotionally. He is somewhat naïve. This is underlined when he returns to his old college in Ohio and he slightly flips out with the sensory overload of revisiting the past.
That he might seem like an over-enthusiastic sap doesn’t occur to Jesse. He finds his job boring and has recently broken up with his girlfriend, so the college is somewhat of a balm to his damaged spirit. He is unaware of the level of his injury until he is back in the comforting green surrounds of Ohio. So his falling for 19 year-old Zibby (Olsen) is more or less a given. Jesse doesn’t feel like a mature adult on the best of days. He even wonders aloud to Zibby whether she is advanced or he is “stunted”.
Zibby definitely feels a connection to Jesse. She gives him a CD of her favourite classical music for his return car trip to NYC. (Sadly, nothing is made of the illegal burning of copyrighted material). That her ‘mix-tape’ is the work of the greatest composers of the last three hundred years shows how serious and mature she is. Jesse begins writing to this girl he hardly knows. They connect more deeply through their shared love of the music.
This is the surprisingly old school set-up for actor-writer-director Josh Radnor’s indie rom com. Before I go on, I need to make a disclaimer. As a movie reviewer, I like to approach the task with as much fairness as I can muster, so I feel duty bound to confess that I have never enjoyed Radnor’s work in the popular television sitcom How I Met Your Mother. (Play nice, HIMYM fans, I’m working towards something here).
Even though Mr Radnor is not responsible for writing his television character, the character he created for this movie bears quite a resemblance to HIMYM’s Ted Mosby. I will go out on a limb and say that if you enjoy Josh Radnor in other things, including his first feature HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE (2010) then you are extremely likely to enjoy his efforts here.
I did find the character of Jesse a bit stunted. However, his old professor played by the excellent Richard Jenkins is great. The character of Jesse’s favourite professor (Allison Janney) is also very good and Elizabeth’s Olsen’s Zibby is convincing. Radnor’s dialogue and observations have snap and insight and he knows how to direct other actors to make the best of these. Parts of the storyline feels misshapen and some of Jesse’s actions towards Zibby lack credibility. However, Radnor for the most part, has a clear idea of the film he wants to make. He even writes a terrific scene late in proceedings that gives us some idea that he knows exactly why Jesse could be so off-putting to some people.
This is an entertaining movie that suffers from being too polite in places. However, I think there are pointers to a future Radnor project that keeps him behind the camera utilising his stronger talents; writing and directing. 97mins. (5/10)