*This review was previously submitted as an assignment in my film class, which is the reason for its formality and structure.*
"Liberal Arts," written and directed by Josh Radnor, deals with the often-crushing reality of post-college life and the pedestal on which the seemingly idyllic college years are placed. Though the film often runs the risk of becoming an intellectually preachy vanity piece, its genuinely smart writing and relentlessly likable cast elevates it to an honest, enjoyable study of college and its aftermath.
Radnor stars as 35-year-old Jesse, a college recruiter with an unmarketable English/history degree who is nostalgic for his own days at a picturesque Ohio university. When an old professor (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to campus for his retirement dinner, Jesse finds himself drawn to smart, peppy student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), despite his discomfort at the age difference between them. While exploring their latent relationship at his alma mater, Jesse encounters his most influential former professor (Allison Janney), a clinically depressed student (John Magaro), and some realizations about his own aims in life.
Given the subject matter and setting, it's expected that the characters will pride themselves on their intellect and sophistication, and this gives way to some contrived, artsy dialogue, such as a letter montage (never easy to pull off) between Jesse and Zibby in which they wax poetic about classical music, which sounds smart in writing but comes off as unconvincing and pretentious when spoken, accompanied heavy-handedly by poignant New York scenery. However, the witty, laugh-out-loud dialogue usually keeps the film and characters from feeling like they take themselves too seriously, making determinedly highbrow scenes like this clash uncomfortably with the generally self-aware tone.
Radnor writes his character into enough glamorous situations (all the significant female characters sleep with him or try to at some point) and makes him sound over-educated enough that the film could have easily felt like a shameless vanity piece, but he plays Jesse so affably that there's not much room to mind. It's quite believable that his character would attract even young girls, with his naturally youthful looks and self-deprecating charm. Olsen does well with an even more challenging character; Zibby comes dangerously close to the "manic pixie dream girl" archetype of indies, but Olsen plays her with a sweet innocence that never feels fake and, when called on for dramatic moments, she is every bit a real college girl – wounded, vulnerable, and ultimately clueless about where she's going in life. Zac Efron flits in and out as a wisdom-dispensing stoner who may or may not be a figment of Jesse's imagination, offering some of the best laughs in the film.
Arguably the best performances, though, are given by Jenkins and Magaro. Jenkins plays the professor every student wants; like the film itself, he doesn't take himself too seriously but is utterly devoted to the school. He delivers some of the best acting in the film when he pleads for his job back mere days after retiring. Magaro is strangely touching as a college student perhaps closer to the norm than the Zibbies of the world: miserable in school, there solely to please his family, and constantly on the brink of a mental breakdown. In his limited screen time, he creates an oddly heart-winning character despite his sullen demeanor.
"Liberal Arts" is an enjoyable, cleverly written film that should strike a note with college students current and former. The witty writing and earnest cast make its few pretentious missteps easy to brush off affectionately.
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