Review: Lively ‘Liberal Arts’ gives it old the college try

Josh Radnor, actor, producer, director, and writer of his second film, "Liberal Arts."
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“Liberal Arts” is a light and lively comedy of manners about college, literature and a midlife crisis that hits earlier than expected.

The bookish group at the heart of this talky film — Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron and Allison Janney — is having such a grand time trading tart exchanges their mood proves infectious. The sparring helps offset some of the contrivances that make “Liberal Arts” less buttoned up than it should be — so an A for effort and a C for execution.

Radnor, who also writes and directs, plays Jesse, a guy caught in a conundrum. He’s a university admissions counselor in New York City, now 35, but not yet able to let go of a lingering nostalgia for his Midwest college days. That’s clear in the clever opening as he pitches the many virtues of a liberal arts education to some faceless student who doesn’t begin to share his enthusiasm.

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But it does put Jesse in the right state of mind to accept an invitation to a retirement dinner for one of his favorite English professors, Peter Hoberg (Jenkins). While New York has been giving him a rough time — he’s just out of a relationship, a laundromat thief makes off with his clothes — Jesse’s alma mater embraces him. Its leafy campus and aged brick buildings are awash in sunshine and students. (Though it remains unnamed, Radnor shot the film at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he went to school.)

The occasion allows Jesse to give into, and reflect on, all those old feelings — not of the frat-boy party type but the coffeehouse debates over favorite authors. It becomes a crafty way to dissect the way in which nostalgia can trump the harder truths of the past. When Jesse bumps into professor Judith Fairfield (Janney) and begins gushing about her class on the Romantics, he barely merits an arched brow.

The film shifts from fond memories to a more thorny present when Jesse meets a fetching young student, Zibby (Olsen), who also loves the Romantics. There is an undeniable something between them. Just what that something is, or can become, remains uncertain. Zibby is 19, and it’s been 16 years since Jesse was that age. She defends a certain vampire love story as distracting entertainment; he denounces it as the worst book ever written. Then there is his life is back in New York. Indeed everything about his time spent on campus reminds him of the distance he’s traveled in both miles and mind-set in the years since graduation.

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Though Jesse returns to New York, he and Zibby begin an old-fashioned correspondence — handwritten letters sent via U.S. mail. It’s a lot of lovely getting-to-know-you prose and an occasion for nice montages. After a time, she wants the gentleman to actually call and Jesse drives back to Ohio for a date (fear of flying the excuse). So begins the conspiracy of events that will force Zibby and Jesse to think about growing up before getting together.

Since their flirtation is forcing the coming-of-age issues, there should be a visible attraction. But the filmmaker does a better job in drawing out the couple’s differences than igniting a spark. When they go back to Zibby’s dorm room to “make out,” its priceless to watch Jesse’s discomfort as it dawns on him just how absurd the situation is.

Olsen continues to show that her breakthrough in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was not a fluke. She has a gift for finding the right note for her characters, and she’s made Zibby just innocent enough and astute enough to be a compelling complicating factor. Janney and Jenkins simply never hit a false note.

This is Radnor’s second film and relies on the same gentle humor to carry it that made 2010’s “Happythankyoumoreplease” such a festival favorite. It’s more of a nudge in the ribs than the biting style of humor that has come to dominate today’s comedies and makes for a nice change.


There are a couple of secondary story lines — one about a troubled kid at the college, another about love back in NYC — that remain rough around the edges. But before anything gets too tedious, or you start to notice the few loose ends, someone will say something ironic that is so smartly on the mark that it’s impossible not to laugh.