Review: Liberal Arts (2012)

Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed this feature about a 35-year-old college admissions officer (Jesse) who returns to his alma mater to attend a retirement ceremony for a beloved professor, is best known for his role as Ted on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. There are a number of differences between Jesse and Ted, notably that the former is far more unwilling to be impulsive in almost all areas of life, but one trait that they hold in common is finding it hard to grow up and act their age.

Radnor has been very shrewd in his casting, getting the best out of character actors and new stars alike. Richard Jenkins, as the retiring professor, and Allison Janney, brilliant as another academic who changed Jesse’s life, are always reliable and don’t disappoint here. Elizabeth Olsen, so fantastic in Martha Marcy May Marlene earlier this year, steals the show here as Zibby, the university student who Jesse connects with on his visit. Olsen is equal parts funny and charming, and looks likely to have a long career ahead of her.

The film has a lot of interesting things to say about books and what they mean to us. Jesse’s claim that reading gets in the way of the rest of our lives may appear a little patronising but his decision to be non-specific about some of the literature discussed is wise and ensures that the audience is thinking more about the general themes and less about their personal feelings on Twilight and David Foster Wallace.

Where the film fails, however, is in Radnor’s decision to include a couple of other sub-plots in Jesse’s story. His mentoring of the depressed and frustrated Dean seems hackneyed and inessential, while Zac Efron’s cameo performance as the open-minded Nat is redundant and only there to further the plot in the least subtle of ways.

Ultimately, Radnor’s attempts to try and say something deeply profound about ageing/maturity and what a liberal arts education is really for have stopped him from fully fleshing out characters and getting more laughs. It prevents the film from realising what it really should be, perfect for Sundance audiences and a Sunday afternoon, and nothing more.

B-

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