He who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Ecclesiastes
When NYC University admissions counselor Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) returns to his Ohio alma mater for a retirement dinner in honor of his favorite professor, he meets 19 year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene") and sparks fly. After a courtship by letter, Jesse returns to see Zibby, but he has trouble seeing beyond their age difference and feels like he's slipping backwards by returning to the place of his "Liberal Arts."
Writer/director Josh Radnor's (TV's 'How I Met Your Mother') sophomore film is an advance on his first, "Happythankyoumoreplease," in technical production values only. In fact, his second film feels even more contrived than his first and the sitcom star is having a difficult time shaking of the shackles of that format. At one point, his Jesse asks Zibby if she's advanced or he's stunted, and despite her answer, his character is a prime example of arrested development. The best thing about the film is to be found in two supporting roles which represent Jesse's mentor/proteges in a script stuffed with obvious parallels.
A red flag is flown in the film's opening scene when a pudgy, white teenager steals Jesse's dirty laundry, a rather incomprehensible crime followed by the purchase of a button down plaid shirt which inexplicably gets admiring comments from not one, but two women. At Professor Peter Hoberg's (Richard Jenkins, "The Cabin in the Woods") dinner, the man takes the podium to make an embarrassingly needy speech which even Jenkins cannot save. Clearly, the man is facing the same transitional issue we're about to watch Jesse wrestle with (Radnor visualizes his joy at returning to campus by literally rolling around in the grass!).
Zibby is the daughter of Hoeberg's other weekend guests and she goes out of her way to put herself into Jesse's path, presenting him with a classical mix CD with her phone number on his departure. While Olsen has established herself as a gifted actress, her role selection has been a bit chaotic. She's fine here, but, of all people, Zac Efron ("The Lucky One") is more interesting. He's Nat, a kind of hippie guru in a stocking cap, whom Jesse runs into at critical junctures. Even better is John Magaro ("The Brave One," "The Box") as Dean, a depressive who Jesse connects with over David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest.' Dean goes off on a rant about everyone's sloppy use of superlatives, one of Radnor's better pieces of writing which continues to pay off throughout the film. Jesse and Dean's connection is the most touching in the film and Magaro could have a small breakout showcase here.
The letter writing cross cutting which comprises the film's second act is meant to show the discovery of art through educational exposure with romantic undertones and it does the job except that Radnor's writing for his character sounds too adolescent, a piece of classical music making him aware of 'the divine,' etc. This may have worked for a man in his early twenties, but Jesse's 35. Better is a bit of solo scribbling where he considers his and Zibby's 16 year age gap in a series of comparisons which range from appalling to acceptable. A parallel piece on literary appreciation finds Jesse reading 'Twilight' because Zibby likes it which results in an argument, but it is a bit transparently meant to have underlying irony when we've seen early on that the film series' own Elizabeth Reaser is the age appropriate lady-in-waiting. Allison Janney is the older woman to Zibby's too young one, Jesse's former professor of Romantics, whose character is another irony and the film's least necessary.
"Liberal Arts" may hold home truths for its author that are relatable, but every nice touch or moment collides against a contrived and obvious one. Jesse's parting gift to Zibby is a package of books - a 'real' vampire book, Bram Stoker's 'Dracula,' an uninspiring choice, and the lovelier idea, Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience.'
Robin gives "Liberal Arts" a C+.
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