Movies that are set on college campuses are a dime a dozen. They usually end up being formulaic and chock-full of stereotypes. Liberal Arts could have been the same old generic “college life” flick, but instead it goes for a more relatable theme.
When a bored 35 year-old New Yorker (Josh Radnor) returns to his alma mater for his favorite professor’s retirement party in Ohio, he falls for a vibrant 19 year-old college student (Elizabeth Olsen). Jesse graduated college with an degree in English Lit back in the 90′s and is now working in the Admissions department for NYU. He’s a voracious reader who gets more joy out of reading classics, than he does interacting with others. He finds it odd that his potential soulmate is in the form of a pretty sophomore, nicknamed Zippy. She is wise beyond her years. Zippy is Jesse’s equal when it comes to a love of reading. They have the same taste for classic literature, except she reads Twilight as a guilty pleasure. She also has a passion for classical music and opera, which Jesse gets hooked on, thanks to her.
As it’s stated in the film, she might be advanced for 19, while he might be stunted for 35. Radnor and Olsen have wonderful on-screen chemistry. His neuroticism matched with her effervescence make for a charming couple. Jesse feels he’s too old to start a relationship with a girl 16 years his junior, but Zippy can’t stand dating immature guys in the 18 to 22 range. You can understand why Jesse falls for Zippy and it’s all because of Olsen’s performance. She’s as good in this as she was in Martha Marcy May Marlene and proves why she might end up becoming one of the best actresses of this decade. Some actors/actresses have an “it” factor that is obvious to see up on the big screen. Elizabeth Olsen has that and more to spare.
Radnor, best known for his role on the TV hit How I Met Your Mother, not only acted in Liberal Arts, but also wrote, directed and produced the picture. Even when the film seems like the plot might be going around in circles, Radnor makes sure that the movie cul-de-sac is an enjoyable spin. This is an intelligent film for an intelligent audience, about sharp, well-written characters. It covers love, sex, friendship, isolation, social awkwardness, youth and aging. Or as some may call it… life.
Richard Jenkins, who plays the retiring professor, adds another strong performance to his long career as a go-to veteran actor. Allison Janney makes the most of her small role as a bitchy professor and even Zac Efron is solid as a hippie-ish student.
Radnor has created an all-around fantastic film and Olsen is remarkable to watch.
I give LIBERAL ARTS **** out of ****.