Movie Review: Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor as Jesse in “Liberal Arts”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

While the title refers to a specific kind of college education that comprises some or all of such topics as the arts, humanities, natural science and social science, we might just as well think of Liberal Arts as a love letter to that nascent time between high school and adulthood, when many of us first established a foothold on our own interior terrain. Removed from parents and silly peers of convenience, college afforded us a chance to learn for learnings’ sake. Additionally, if we earnestly tried to keep our sense and sensibilities wide open, such higher learning might have revealed some heretofore unknown path that could have guided us toward destinations that were a perfect fit with who we truly were. Or who we might become. If we were lucky. If.

Or, we might be like Jesse (Josh Radnor) who, at 35, still walks with his head half-turned back toward those old, happy-go-lucky college days. Residing in New York, thrashing it out among the multitudes of day-job drones, he misses his verdant rural Ohio campus, his professors, his classes and his younger life before he had to take on a thankless job in order to pay the bills. (The unnamed institution is shot at Kenyon College, 50 miles northeast of Columbus.) As he says to any college co-ed who will listen, “This is the only time you get to do this. You get to sit around and read really great books and talk with people about ideas.”

When Jesse, now a college admissions counselor, gets a call from his adored onetime Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asking him to attend a retirement dinner in his behalf, Jesse immediately accepts. Being that not much is going on for him in New York (he just lost his wardrobe as well as his girlfriend), he rushes back to the bosom of his dear alma mater. Which is followed by his continuing to rush back whenever he can. Causing us to wonder just how loosey-goosey his college admissions job may be, given he takes countless days and weeks off without worry about any impending unemployment whatsoever.

In Liberal Arts (written, directed and starring Mr. Radnor), we have to contend with a passive protagonist who sports frequent, wide-eyed stares of wonderment, as if he got lost somewhere between the upper quad and the campus bookstore. And what, exactly, confounds him? It is that young woman (Elizabeth Olsen’s Zibby), 16 years his junior, who appears to be flirting with him? Or maybe it’s the fellow in a wacky woolen cap (Zac Efron’s very funny Nat), who seems to be attuned to some mystical Orphic power holding universal secrets? Perhaps it’s that brainiac with a propensity for David Foster Wallace, signifying some kind of kindred spirit?

No matter. Passive is passive, and as protagonists, they can be a risky business. Unless the screenwriter is making a statement and/or a joke with such an inert state (i.e., Chauncey Gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, inadvertently acting as a human Rorschach for others’ expectations), the non-heroic hero wears thin. Radnor gives us no back story as to why this 35-year-old man is so hopelessly stunted. Any of a dozen reasons might have sufficed: a family tragedy, a few career missteps, emotional/physical/mental setbacks, economic hardships – something, anything would have been fine. But to revolve a story around a nice, supposedly bright man who wants to set the clock back 16 years or so, without allowing for who he is or what suddenly brings about such an overpowering yearning for academe, begs for an answer. Hell, Jesse, go back to college, get a teaching degree and spend your days hanging with your old college profs. Easy. Next.

Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby, Josh Radnor as Jesse in “Liberal Arts”

Thank heavens for the superb ensemble that rescues the film. Elizabeth Olsen positively glows as the 19-year-old theater major Zibby who has learned, per her improv class, that you have to say “yes” to everything. She is the pursuer in the vibrant Zibby/hesitant Jesse relationship; when she wishes for a bona fide gentleman caller, we wonder if perhaps she might do better. Jenkins gives us a strong outing as the retiring professor, his early, manically cheery sense of impending freedom turned into a frightened desire to cling — like dusty ivy — to the brick towers of the only home he’s known for nearly four decades.

And stealing the show with just a handful of scenes, Allison Janney bowls the film over as the decidedly unromantic Romantics Professor, a steamrolling powerhouse who does not suffer fools gladly. A woman so forceful, she actually succeeds in sparking the passive Jesse who, for just a moment, gives as good as he gets. Applause all around … and might we have some more, please?

The concept of college waving at us in the rearview mirror, accompanied by all its attendant memories of obfuscation, offers up quite a rich world to explore. It’s not that Radnor failed … but gee, Prof, it looks like he may be getting an “incomplete.”


Rating on a scale of 5 college tries: 2.5

Release date: September 21, 2012 (ltd.), wider release September 28, 2012 and VOD
Written and Directed by: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Zac Efron
Rating: NR
Running Time: 97 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.


  1. David Jimerson says:

    Mark, I went to Ohio Wesleyan, and I pretty much lived the central story down to a T, so I had an uncanny amount of material in this movie to which to relate deeply — and I just . . . didn’t. The characters, with the exception of Zibby, were flat, wooden, undeveloped, and I wanted to throttle Jesse for being such a pretentious milquetoast. The letters he wrote to Zibby were full of highfalutin pap, with such forced nonsense that I nearly rolled my eyes out of my head, and if she were half the character presented, she would have, too.

    Like you, the movie made me nostalgic for my alma mater, but the navel-gazing, the unnecessary subplots, and the near-complete artistic betrayal of Zibby’s character (who gets unceremoniously tossed over the side just before her emotional arc is fulfilled) left me cold for this one.

  2. Mark K says:

    While appreciate the right of any film critic to hold their opinion, I am irked when details of the film are described incorrectly or certain details are omitted. The female lead’s name is Zibby not Libby and yes, the movie was filmed at Kenyon College, but you failed to mention that Josh Radnor actually graduated from there, as did Allison Janney. (So did Paul Newman and Jay Cocks, which is probably neither here nor there.) And so did I. And I went to New York city after I graduated, so I had a lot to identify with. The film is also being distributed by Janus Films which is also run by a Kenyon graduate.

    I don’t know whether this “inside” information alters your view of the film, or whether it even should, but I thought the movie was very entertaining, and the Kenyon angle was certainly a contributing factor. I showed up with a more highly developed sense of place than a non-graduate would have which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment. Seeing a former history professor in a cameo or trying to guess who Allison Janney’s character might be modeled after was also a source of cheap thrills not available to a non-alum. Does having gone to Kenyon contribute to the enjoyment of the movie? Probably. Does that make it a better movie? According to the review, no. But I think the movie has a lot going for it, in the “small” movie sense and that most filmgoers will find Liberal Arts enjoyable without the back story.