Review of Liberal Arts

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When 30-something Jesse returns to his alma mater for a professor's retirement party, he falls for Zibby, a college student, and is faced with a powerful attraction that springs up between them.
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Movie Review: "Liberal Arts"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: September 14, 2012
Directed by: Josh Radnor
Genre: Drama/Comedy

In "Liberal Arts," Josh Radnor plays Jesse, a mild-mannered college admissions officer who has lost himself in the books he reads. Despite living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, New York City, he lives a rather humdrum life, preferring the fantasy world of his tomes to the real life happening outside his apartment.

His life is shaken up for good when he gets an invitation from Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), an English professor he was very close to when he attended Kenyon College. It seems that Hoberg is retiring, and he wants Jesse to come to his party. Jesse buys his ticket to Ohio, completely unaware of what awaits him there.

At the retirement party, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the daughter of one of Hoberg's friends. They exchange pleasantries, but it isn't until later that they really hit it off. Jesse is dragged to a party by Nat (Zac Efron), who is a stoner extraordinaire. Zibby happens to be at the party, and they begin talking about art and pop culture.

They are both smitten, but there is just one problem-Zibby is only 19 years old, while Jesse is 35. Though she doesn't see a problem with it, he definitely does. They agree to write to each other once he returns to New York; but this only serves to make them fall further in love. Jesse is horrified at the thought that he is dating a woman 16 years his junior, especially when he finds out she is a virgin. Though Zibby is something of an old soul, he can't seem to get past the age barrier. This doesn't deter Zibby, who finally convinces him to begin wooing her despite the fact that she knows it may not last long at all.

"Liberal Arts" works because Radnor had the presence of mind while writing the script to make sure that the character of Zibby was a mirror of his own personality of 16 years earlier. In Zibby, Jesse sees himself before he descended into the imaginary world of books. While most movie characters might be completely clueless about this, for Jesse it is a revelation that becomes the main plot point. Will he continue to live his rather boring book life or will he finally break out and start living?

Olsen more than proved her dramatic acting prowess with "Martha Marcy May Marlene." With "Liberal Arts," she shows that her acting abilities extend far beyond just drama. Here, she mixes the drama with plenty of laughs and a whole lot of sweetness and heart. She interacts so well with more seasoned actors like Radnor and Jenkins that you would never be able to tell that she only has a handful of roles on her résumé. There is no doubt that Olsen will be a cinematic force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

For his part, Radnor also turns in a fine performance. Though an increasing number of actors, such as George Clooney, have taken to acting in films that they direct, that doesn't make the task any easier. Radnor manages to do a fine job directing and getting excellent performances out of his cast.

The most surprising performance is that of Efron, as resident stoner Nat. Efron has spent the last few years trying to shed his wholesome "High School Musical" persona, and that shedding might have finished with "Liberal Arts." He genuinely seems to be having a blast with the role, which provides a ton of comic relief in between the more dramatic scenes.

Since Radnor is around the same age as his character (and attended Kenyon College in real life), this movie is probably very personal to him. He is possibly going through a mid-30s phase, when your life is not exactly where you expected it to be. Unmarried, no children and no real goals, Jesse has a lot to figure out. Radnor's script makes him a character easy to relate to; people of all ages will probably glean something from him. This is a credit to Radnor's ability as both a screenwriter and an actor. If Radnor can only make one movie a year because of his demanding television schedule, one can only hope they are all as good as "Liberal Arts."

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars