Liberal Arts barely makes the grade

Liberal Arts may be the first Josh Radnor feature to reach UK shores, but it’s actually the follow up to his directorial debut Happythankyoumoreplease.  As with his first foray into writing and directing, Radnor also fills the leading man’s shoes in Liberal Arts, pairing himself with rising star and indie darling Elizabeth Olsen.  Though it manages to avoid becoming a typical cookie-cutter romantic comedy, Liberal Arts spends too much time casting a pseudo-intellectual shadow over a story Radnor seems uncertain how to resolve.

As Jesse, Radnor settles into hard-luck loser mode (even if his luck isn’t that hard at all).  Saddled with an unrewarding admissions role at a local New York college and recently dumped by his girlfriend, Jesse heads back to his liberal arts university in Ohio for the retirement of his old professor, Peter Hoberg (a simply phenomenal Richard Jenkins).  It’s not long before he meets and, subsequently, falls for Olsen’s Zibby, a sophomore student 16 years his junior.  To Radnor’s credit, Liberal Arts offers a contemplative exploration of three individuals at distinctly different age periods of their lives: Zibby has her future ahead of her and is eager to cut to the chase; Jesse is lost adrift in middle age with no clear direction; and Peter has reached the end of his professional road, a fact that he desperately struggles to come to terms with.  At the heart of Liberal Arts is the notion that, as Peter explains to Jesse, “Nobody feels like an adult.  It’s the world’s dirty secret”.  The idea is a simple one, but Liberal Arts fails to effectively address it.

Radnor is engaging and likable enough as Jesse, possibly too much so.  There’s a lot of potential shown by Liberal Arts, but it’s clear that the film would have benefitted from external influence to tighten matters up and keep the script focused.  The moment Jesse sits alone and scrawls out various ages with a 16 year difference is somewhat amusing, but the fact that Jesse would spend time writing out simple maths for no good reason leaves a damper on the scene.  Of course, this is also a character that appears to never have heard classical music prior to being introduced to it by Zibby, so perhaps it’s wrong to assume he’d need see such basic arithmetic on paper.  Olsen is expectedly impressive, capturing the essence of a young woman yearning to be taken seriously as an adult, whilst yet not entirely free of her adolescent ways.  It’s less written into the character than it is how Olsen carries herself and delivers her lines.  Her performance as Zibby is less flashy than her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but Olsen is just as good here.  Still, it’s Jenkins who steals the show as the reluctantly retiring professor.  Despite having less screen time, the complexity of Jenkins’ character and his pitch-perfect portrayal quickly becomes the most compelling aspect of Liberal Arts.  It’s too bad Radnor couldn’t get it all this right.  Also popping up, albeit briefly, is Zac Efron who adds outstanding comedic touches through a dreadfully underwritten role.

Liberal Arts goes down a couple subplot roads that never lead to anywhere convincing.  It’s this inability to convince that drags down what could have been a great film.  The idea of Jesse and Zibby connecting with each other from afar through music would have worked far better had it not been presented as the first time any two people have ever done such a thing before.  It’s enough to make the audience wonder if Radnor thinks them all a bunch of uncultured dolts.  The biggest problem, though, is a script that lacks conviction in its entire final act and offers up an unsatisfying, forced conclusions that feels unintentionally bittersweet.

While Liberal Arts offers outstanding performances from Olsen and Jenkins, Radnor’s script is loaded with intellectual pretensions that often backfire.  In tackling the question of whether age is just a number or not, Radnor fails to take any substantial stance.  Everything about Liberal Arts shows that it aspires to be taken seriously as a highbrow rom-com, but its lack of genuine intellect leaves it looking rather foolish instead.  7/10

Liberal Arts is in UK cinemas 5 October

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Amateur film critic and photographer residing in sunny London.