The pitfalls of academia
Radnor shows you can’t go back in ‘Liberal Arts’
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac
Writer-director-actor Josh Radnor follows up
his debut feature (“Happythankyoumoreplease”)
with a compact romantic comedy that almost works,
but not quite. Radnor does his best John Krasinski
impersonation as Jesse, a 36-year-old example
of stunted adulthood — by way of a liberal arts
education that has kept him in the hallowed
halls of academia. Coming off a break-up with
his girlfriend, Jesse muddles through his days
working as a college admissions councilor in
Jesse’s visit to his collegiate stamping grounds
introduces him to 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth
Olsen), a cute liberal arts major with a daddy
complex. Olsen’s estrogen–simmering performance
dominates the movie. That’s a good thing. Elizabeth,
the younger sister to the famously-overrated
“Olsen Twins,” continues to prove she received
the lion’s share of the family’s talent gene.
Her persuasive performances in “Martha Marcy
May Marlene” and “Silent House” were no fluke.
Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse’s
“second-favorite” teacher at his alma mater
— Ohio’s Kenyon College — extends an invitation
for Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner.
Hoberg has picked his own expiration date, but
is not completely sold on his own idea to leave
behind his comfy existence as a tenured professor.
Zibby’s sincere appreciation for classical music
and literature follows Jesse after his return
to New York. Romance multiplies via an old-fashioned
exchange of hand-written love letters. Cheesy
as it sounds, the narrated dispatches of hyper
intellectual and emotional aspiration do a nice
job of anchoring the story and shedding intimate
light on the characters’ newly rose-tinted world
A reunion at Kenyon College puts the age-inappropriate
pair on a journey of mutual discovery that involves
some humorous criticism of the “Twilight” novels.
Jesse is unreasonably prejudiced against the
teen vampire books considering that he has never
picked one up. Still, he’s up for the challenge
of engaging in a little instant book-club interaction
with Zibby. Jesse spends an afternoon reading
one of the notoriously worst books of all time,
only to confirm every one of his suspicions.
Needless to say, Zibby takes umbrage at Jesse’s
condemnation of the books she loves to read
as mindless entertainment. More than a critical
thinker, Zibby judges Jesse to be a snob. All
of this happens as part of the romantic circling
the would-be lovers are doing to decide if they
should jump in the sack together. The deliberation
engages the audience to figure out which way
they hope the action will go. The filmmaker
savors a nearly masochistic suspense of passion.
Will he or won’t he? Will she or won’t she?
Zac Ephron stinks up the movie as Nat, an annoying,
new-age hippie kid who wears one of those dumb
knit hats with the ties that hang down on the
sides. Written into the script as a ghost-in-the-machine
narrative facilitator, Ephron’s rudderless character
derails the movie whenever he shows up to drop
bombs of idiocy. “Fortune favors those who say
yes,” Nat tells Jesse. Meh. Another pet-the-dog
ploy comes in the guise of Dean, a hyper-cerebral
but mordantly depressed student who Jesse counsels.
The movie would be greatly improved if Radnor
had excised these two insultingly superficial
For its all-too-obvious navel-gazing machinations,
the movie plays its adult character cards better.
Allison Janney is drop-dead funny as Judith
Fairfield, Jesse’s beloved literature professor
from his days as a student. Janney’s delivery
of her character’s withering sarcasm during
a post-coital tête-à-tête is the comic highpoint
of the movie.
Josh Radnor has his heart in the right place,
but can’t help putting his feet on cliché landmines.
Flawed though it is, “Liberal Arts” provides
a couple of significant lessons about emotional
responsibility regarding dating within one’s