Josh Radnor writes, directs, and stars in this slackerish paean to youth. From a distance, "Liberal Arts" may look like a Zach Braff joint, albeit with a classical repertoire instead of a hip contemporary iPod of a soundtrack; but delve under its surface a little, and this film proves to have a bit of depth.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old who has never quite got himself out of his college years. He’s so stuck, in fact, that he works as a college admissions counselor. What this means is that he spends his days blathering to applicants about the program of his nameless college (we only ever find out its location: somewhere in New York City), his nights absorbed in endless stacks of books which he consumes voraciously, and his forays to the Laundromat getting ripped off as soon as he turns his back to buy detergent from the vending machine. There’s also a girlfriend, at least for one brief scene, but she hardly counts since it’s the scene in which she’s breaking up with him.
Jesse has so little going on that he only pretends to consult his calendar when a former professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), phones him up to invite him back to Ohio, and his alma mater, for Hoberg’s retirement dinner. Fearful of flying (and that can’t be a coincidence!), Jesse rents a car and drives all the way. Once he arrives at his old stomping grounds, he throws himself joyously into the campus scene: sun-drenched lawn, bookstore (complete with comfy chairs that are good for sprawling), coffee houses, undergrads...
It’s this last bit that gets Jesse just a little bit into uncomfortable territory. He meets a girl, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), who is 19 going on 40, ready to get out and take on the world on her own terms. A drama enthusiast, Zibby teaches Jesse the first rule of improv: "Say yes to everything!" This works long enough to lead to Jesse and Zibby becoming pen pals, with their letters (written, of all things, on paper, using pens and mailed through the post office!) becoming a medium of conversation about life, music, and, slowly, a romantic spark.
When Zibby invites him back to be her "gentleman caller," Jesse sits down and delivers one of the film’s funniest scenes by listing their relative ages at various points in their lives. When Jesse was 16 (and presumably just becoming sexually active), Zibby was...zero! Jesse’s reaction of dismay is visceral and hilarious. Then again, reckoning the other way, Jesse realizes that when he’s 87 she’ll be 71. Vive la difference! At some point, consenting adults are consenting adults, and the rest is simply paper pushing.
Except for one thing: has Zibby really reached that point? As mature and smart as she is, she simply doesn’t have much life experience yet. Then again, neither does Jesse; can the two make it work? And what about the Romantics professor Jesse has adored since he was Zibby’s age, Prof. Judith Fairfield (Alison Janney)? When it comes to life experience, maturity, and the rest, does Jesse measure up to her?