Josh Radnor writes, directs, and stars in this slackerish paean to youth. From a distance, "Liberal Arts" may look like a Zach Braff joint, albeit with a classical repertoire instead of a hip contemporary iPod of a soundtrack; but delve under its surface a little, and this film proves to have a bit of depth.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old who has never quite got himself out of his college years. He’s so stuck, in fact, that he works as a college admissions counselor. What this means is that he spends his days blathering to applicants about the program of his nameless college (we only ever find out its location: somewhere in New York City), his nights absorbed in endless stacks of books which he consumes voraciously, and his forays to the Laundromat getting ripped off as soon as he turns his back to buy detergent from the vending machine. There’s also a girlfriend, at least for one brief scene, but she hardly counts since it’s the scene in which she’s breaking up with him.
Jesse has so little going on that he only pretends to consult his calendar when a former professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), phones him up to invite him back to Ohio, and his alma mater, for Hoberg’s retirement dinner. Fearful of flying (and that can’t be a coincidence!), Jesse rents a car and drives all the way. Once he arrives at his old stomping grounds, he throws himself joyously into the campus scene: sun-drenched lawn, bookstore (complete with comfy chairs that are good for sprawling), coffee houses, undergrads...
It’s this last bit that gets Jesse just a little bit into uncomfortable territory. He meets a girl, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), who is 19 going on 40, ready to get out and take on the world on her own terms. A drama enthusiast, Zibby teaches Jesse the first rule of improv: "Say yes to everything!" This works long enough to lead to Jesse and Zibby becoming pen pals, with their letters (written, of all things, on paper, using pens and mailed through the post office!) becoming a medium of conversation about life, music, and, slowly, a romantic spark.
When Zibby invites him back to be her "gentleman caller," Jesse sits down and delivers one of the film’s funniest scenes by listing their relative ages at various points in their lives. When Jesse was 16 (and presumably just becoming sexually active), Zibby was...zero! Jesse’s reaction of dismay is visceral and hilarious. Then again, reckoning the other way, Jesse realizes that when he’s 87 she’ll be 71. Vive la difference! At some point, consenting adults are consenting adults, and the rest is simply paper pushing.
Except for one thing: has Zibby really reached that point? As mature and smart as she is, she simply doesn’t have much life experience yet. Then again, neither does Jesse; can the two make it work? And what about the Romantics professor Jesse has adored since he was Zibby’s age, Prof. Judith Fairfield (Alison Janney)? When it comes to life experience, maturity, and the rest, does Jesse measure up to her?
Jenkins is nearly wasted here; his role is merely a device for getting Jesse back to the ol’ college campus, though there are a few scenes in which Hoberg provides something of a counterbalance to Zibby and her youthful peers. Jenkins is tossed a subplot, of sorts, though it spins out into a dead-end--more curlicue than narrative thread.
Radnor is cute and charming, but though we spend the entire movie with his character he’s left maddeningly incomplete. Why does he hang with his old professor? What, exactly, has refused to blossom or become unstuck and let him move on from his college days? Is it a matter of his background? Does he have a background? Jesse mentions having four parents; the mind sparks at the possibilities of this, but the movie doesn’t; as far as the film is concerned, Jesse might have spontaneously generated from a stack of manuscripts like the bookworm that he is. The line is left to dangle, along with hints that Jesse might be bisexual. Certain selections on the playlist Zibby makes him gives Jesse amorous thoughts about everyone around him, male and female alike... but this, alas, seems nothing more than one more holdover from youth. (After all, aren’t all college kids bi these days?)
Whatever his past, Jesse’s future seems to incline toward some form of mentorship. While at Zibby’s college, he befriends a pixyish fellow named Nat, played by Zac Efron, and a troubled young genius named Dean, played by John Magaro. These young buddies of his add some flavor and even a life lesson or two, but there’s nothing hard and fast to their friendships; just a late-breaking, suicidal phone call from Dean, and a half-serious rumination that Nat might turn out to be an imaginary friend.
It’s Janney who really lends the film some tangible substance. Her character is hard-shelled, unsentimental, and in some ways downright serrated. Fairfield is a piece of work: She chucks Jesse out following a quick tussle in the bedroom so that she can finish her drink and then get on with her postcoital Ambien. When he protests, she advises him to grow a little "armor around your gooey little heart." Janney is unapologetic and well-armored in her own right, but irresistible on the screen. In this role, she’s like an American Charlotte Rampling.
"Liberal Arts" isn’t really about college or post-graduate employability or even questions of statutory safety. It’s more a movie about bibliophilia, and how the connections we make with books (those of us who still read, that is) could usually stand to be supplemented with some honest to goodness people skills. Setting this theme in a college context only makes sense; as Jesse tells the depressed Dean, "You can go up to anyone around here and tell them, ’I’m a poet!’ and they won’t punch you in the face."
The May-December... well, okay, May-August romantic angle is good for some drama, some self-reflection, and more than a few jokes ("You’re so fascinating, so beautiful--so age appropriate!" Jesse gasps at one point, in the throes of a clench with someone of his own generation). In the end, however, this is a little more than an affable, self-absorbed fable for Generation Y as it pauses on the threshold of middle age.