Earlier this year I wrote a post called “What It Means To Be 36.” I wrote, “I don’t want to be ‘36’—or ‘26,’ or ‘46.’ This is nothing new: I felt the same way about being ‘16’ when I was 16. When adults would refer to me as a ‘teenager,’ I’d tip my nose slightly in the air and say, ‘I prefer the term adolescent.’ Now, as then, I want my life to be seen and judged for what it is, not against an outdated yardstick for what it’s ‘supposed’ to be. Look at who I am and not how old I am.”
Jesse (Josh Radnor), the protagonist of Liberal Arts, is 35 years old and wants desperately to be “35.” He’s pretty sure that means hooking up with a 30-something bookstore clerk instead of a 19-year-old college student, and the way he cites age in his conversations with both (foreplay murmur: “You’re so…age-appropriate!”) would give either or both ample excuse to smack him.
Jesse’s retired professor (Richard Jenkins) has it right: “No one feels like an adult…that’s life’s dirty secret.” Someone was bound to say something resonant in the second half of this movie, since writer-director Radnor takes the charming and sympathetic characters he’s developed in the first act and subjects them to a grueling obstacle course of contrived scenes that have Jesse being lectured on the meaning of life by everyone up to and including a stoner in a ski cap (a ludicrously miscast Zac Efron).
It’s a damn shame, because that first act really isn’t too bad. Jesse, a newly-single New Yorker who supposedly works as a college admissions officer despite the screenplay’s later need for him to have not given so much as a single thought to the continued existence of college and college students for the past decade and a half, drives back to his Midwest alma mater (played by Kenyon College, Radnor’s actual alma mater) to attend his old prof’s retirement party. He ends up spending a long day with sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who—need it be said?—is poised but naïve, with a crush on Jesse that will soon cause him to enact a crisis of conscience in the most obnoxious way possible.
I reserved judgment on Elizabeth Olsen’s acting ability after Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie that required her to do little more than look photogenically troubled; though Liberal Arts is a much worse movie, it provides Olsen with a more dynamic character, and she gives Zibby subtle dimension. Maybe the best thing that can be said about Radnor’s filmmaking here is that he allows Olsen to create a credible, genuinely lovable character in a film that often makes you want to beat yourself with a meat tenderizer to distract yourself from Jesse’s idiot character and his bicker-esque journey.
For a film that ostensibly celebrates finding the appropriate contentments for one’s age, Liberal Arts leaves one with a distasteful feeling that Radnor isn’t playing fair. The three rivals for Jesse’s attentions are the luminous and complex Zibby, a bitter and cruel cougar (Allison Janney), and a perfectly nice woman Jesse’s own age who gets little screen time and likes to point out Jesse’s grey hairs. She thinks that Jesse’s going to love being old; that may be so, but I have a hunch that Josh Radnor is going to really fucking hate it.