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Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Released 5 October 2012
Director Josh Radnor

Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magero, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Zac Efron
Writer(s) Josh Radnor

Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra, Jesse Hara, Lauren Munsch, Josh Radnor
Origin United States
Running Time 97 minutes
Genre Comedy, drama
Rating 12A

Mind the (age) gap.

A line from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused popped into my head while I was watching Liberal Arts - "That’s what I love about these High School chicks man, I get older, they stay the same age." It’s a good line. It’s also a sentiment that could act as a handy polar opposite to the one espoused by Liberal Arts, in which a thirty-something year old struggles tediously against his attraction to a nineteen year old student.

Josh Radnor, best known from the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, is the director, writer and star of the film. He plays Jesse, a college admissions officer in his mid-thirties. Unsatisfied with his work, he spends most of his time with his head buried in a book, much to the detriment of his social life. When his favourite college professor (Richard Jenkins) calls to invite him to his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance to go back to his alma mater. While there, he meets an intelligent young student called Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and the pair begin a tentative relationship.

At first, this all plays out in a rather sweet way. Elizabeth Olsen has a lovely natural screen presence and the pair suit each other well. Unfortunately, like Radnor’s debut Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is unremittingly earnest and when the two potential lovers continue their long distance courtship through annoyingly “deep” letters about classical music, it starts to become a little too smug. This is frustrating because hiding in the margins is a much more interesting story - that of the retiree college professor, beautifully played by Jenkins. Amid all the intellectual posturing, he injects a shot of unselfconscious realism. In a film so obsessed with age it is the older performers who provide the emotional weight (Allison Janney is another highlight as a hard-bitten professor).

Despite a few standout scenes, on the whole the film suffers from the same surfeit of pseudo-intellectualism as its protagonist. It seems that in Radnor’s case, that old adage of writing what you know is holding him back. Perhaps for his next effort he should venture outside of his own generation.

- Linda O’Brien