Jesse (Josh Radnor, who also serves as writer and director) works at an admissions office in a New York City college when he receives a phone call from one of his old college professors in Ohio, inviting Jesse back home to attend his retirement party. Recently dumped and eager to get out of the bland routine of accepting/denying applicants at his job, Jesse agrees. After the nostalgic giddiness of returning to his alma mater, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a nineteen-year-old student who is perhaps too emotionally mature for her young age, and yet at the same time, not emotionally mature enough. Jesse and Zibby connect during his brief stay in Ohio and vow to remain in touch, exchanging handwritten letters to one another while Jesse begins to see New York in a new, happier light thanks to Zibby’s Opera-infused compilation she gave him before parting ways. Their connection deepens, leading Zibby to invite Jesse to come to visit her. This is where things get a bit sticky.
There is an icky factor to the budding romance. Jesse is thirty-five. Zibby is nineteen. There is a sixteen year age difference and Jesse is well aware of the potential consequences of dating such a younger woman. In fact, one of the movie’s funniest scenes comes with Jesse attempting to figure out just when in their lives the ickiness factor disappears. Clearly, it’s an issue now, but when he’s eighty-seven and she’s seventy-one? Okay, well that works. The hopeful optimism on his face is enough to induce a giggle, but you feel his need to make sure he’s not actually a creep.
While Jesse obviously has sincere feelings for Zibby, it’s pretty evident that being around her is like feeling nineteen all over again, which is what Jesse is really striving for. As Zibby tells him, he’s romanticizing youth, though it takes a while for Jesse to realize that she’s probably right. Radnor is pretty affable in his role as Jesse. He is pretty adept at playing the nice guy, patient as he tries to carefully navigate through the emotions of everyone he comes into contact with. But Jesse has moments where he borderlines on pretentious and this is especially evident when he takes Zibby to task for liking a trilogy of cheesy vampire novels (which I assume was a dig at Twilight given the vague references and the fact that the book Jesse decides to read to prove his vitriol is well deserved is called ‘Amber Moon’). They spend a great deal of time arguing over this, and I have to admit, I sided with Zibby on this argument. Things shouldn’t have to be critically acclaimed for people to enjoy them. As she points out to Jesse, “You think it’s cool to hate things and it’s not, it’s boring.”
I honestly haven’t seen Elizabeth Olsen in much beyond the Marvel films where she plays Scarlet Witch. But I do enjoy her as an actress, and I loved her in the role of Zibby. She felt more real to me than most of the other characters who borderline on being horribly cliche. Olsen adds brightness to every scene she’s in and she gracefully balances Zibby’s emotional maturity with her lingering naiveté about life. Her character could have come across as annoyingly worldly and wise for a nineteen-year-old, but Olsen is so genuine that it’s entirely believable that she may actually know more about living than Radnor does. I found myself wishing she had more screen time because it felt like the movie dragged a bit when she wasn’t interacting with Radnor.
The characters also fit some obvious tropes. Richard Jenkins is a newly retired professor terrified of what ‘old age’ means and desperate to return to work (although he had one of my favorite lines in the movie – “Any place you don’t leave is a prison.”). Zac Efron feels out of place and a bit pointless as the campus hippie stoner who shows up to be weird and shower Jesse with what I assume is meant to be sage advice but only comes across as stupid. John Magaro is the suicidal genius who, of course, loves David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Reaser is a bland bookstore owner named Ana who appears briefly, in the beginning, to make eyes at Radnor’s Jesse before we meet up with her again near the conclusion so she can wax poetic about how she loves books so much that she only loves trees because they give her books – ugh, come on. Stop. We get it. Zibby loves young adult vampire novels so she’s bad. Ana loves the books Jesse loves so she’s good. Cue eye roll.
Other than Olsen, my favorite part of this movie was Allison Janney. She’s fabulous in every role, and she has a small one here as another one of Jesse’s former professors whom he quite obviously had, and has, a crush on. She’s pointed and takes no bullshit, nor does she take any pleasure in Jesse’s love and respect of her class, and all the ways it ‘opened him up’. I think her performance really salvaged what could have been an overdone storyline of the older, sexy professor who has grown too hard from life to care about anyone or anything. Blah, blah, blah. Thank goodness for Allison Janney.
Radnor showed promise as a filmmaker and Liberal Arts is a movie I don’t regret watching. I just couldn’t figure out what the narrative was. It shoots off into so many directions that by the end, I wasn’t really that invested in what became of Jesse.