Liberal Arts explores the relationship between a 19-year-old college sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and a 35-year-old man, Jesse (Josh Radnor). Jesse now lives in New York City, but in the 1990s he attended a small liberal arts college in Ohio. He returns to his alma mater to celebrate the retirement party of his favorite professors, Peter Hoburg (Richard Jenkins), and ends up meeting Zibby.
Jesse and Zibby meet through Zibby’s parents, and they have an instant connection. After Jesse leaves the college, he agrees to write Zibby via snail mail, and they keep up a “courtship” or sorts for a few months through this, until Zibby asks him to come visit her back at the college. Jesse knows that the age difference between them is too much to ignore (at one point, he makes a list with the columns “When I was: [x] age” and “She was: [x] age”, coming up with depressing numbers like 19-3 and 16-0), but he finds himself greatly enjoying Zibby’s company. The movie explores them trying to figure out if what they have would work in “real life,” but it’s also about Jesse and how he’s never really felt happy since he left college.
The chemistry between Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor was really good, and I was actually kind of rooting for their relationship to work, despite the age difference. Allison Janney plays another of Jesse’s former professors, whom he sees all over campus and later has an encounter with, and she plays the role to the hilt; it’s almost an exact opposite of her guidance counselor role in 10 Things I Hate About You, actually (very droll and serious). Richard Jenkins plays a professor who is going through something similar to Jesse’s “midlife crisis,” as he has given his retirement letter but is now having second thoughts about leaving the college. The cast also includes Elizabeth Reaser in a small part as a woman who works in a bookstore Jesse frequents, John Magaro as a troubled college student whom Jesse connects with, and Zac Efron is a miscast but also hilarious role as a stoner dude on campus.
Yes, see this film. Josh Radnor is not only the star of the film, he also wrote and directed it, which is impressive. He plays the part of Jesse well, and makes us all wish we could return back to our college years, if only for a weekend or two; he also succeeds at making the character aware of his age but with a firm “young at heart” philosophy, which might be why he becomes friends with Zibby at first. The movie has a surprising amount of funny moments as well, and although it’s a little slow at times, the story is one that anybody could relate to, which is why it will ultimately succeed overall.
Liberal Arts is in theaters today, October 26th, and is rated PG-13, with a runtime of 1 hour and 37 minutes.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.