Liberal Arts: Barely Coming of Age

Liberal Arts, the unrated IFC film starring its writer and director, Josh Radnor, at first seems to take page from Answer This!, given the romance between his character, “Jesse,” and “Zibby” (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore and sixteen years his junior.  But Radnor, 38, co-star of How I Met Your Mother, plays an admissions counselor that is easily uninspired by his job and has just broken up with his girlfriend.  After being invited to the retirement party of his favorite professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse happily returns to his mid-Western college alma mater to honor the English professor.  Hoberg is not his father, but rather the guy that introduces Jesse Fisher to family friend Zibby, the walking light bulb (avid intellect) that, at her age, loves Twilight, something Jesse considers the worst book ever written in English.

With myopia being a butt of the joke, the story attempts to avoid clichés in the bonding action by sticking to his reaching with literature, as Jesse builds a tenuous friendship with Dean John Magaro over Infinite Jest.  The motion action, however is primarily led by the professors and odd friends like Nat (Zac Efron).  And with the intention of having the college act like a real college, where almost no subject is off limits, professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney) teaches Jesse about the romantic poet.  All these effete, over-articulate man-boys who never learned to toughen up — Don’t be one of them.  Go work with your hands.  Build something.  Punch someone in the face.  Yet he continues to keep his head in books, and is slow to adapt.

It’s really a barely-coming of age story that puts a focus on those guys that have high hopes in their education and the ability to bond on wit, now stuck in their thirties.  The relationship with Zibby would be sparked by the fact that she’s advanced and he’s stunted, and he would come to ask which angle made their mutual attraction.  It is not until Elizabeth Reaser’s entrance that the more age-appropriate relationships ensue and grow…and fail, with Judith literally kicking him out of bed.  And Jesse still ends up sounding a little like Radnor in a sitcom.  At least I appreciate the irony, he reacts to the sudden cold after the verbal heat and “quickie.”  I just had the least romantic night of my life with a romantics professor.

So Liberal Arts maintains humor and exceeds certain expectations.  What more could you want?  Grade: A-.


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