Liberal Arts | reviews, news & interviews
Elizabeth OIsen shines in cross-generational romance that doesn't
Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio should see an uptick in admissions on the back of Liberal Arts. The wan cross-generational love story was shot on the invitingly leafy grounds of a campus whose alumni over time have included E L Doctorow, Paul Newman and this very film's own co-star, Alison Janney. But if the place looks lovely, the people decidedly don't. One's best advice for Elizabeth Olsen, who walks off with the film playing a lovestruck undergrad, is to get out - and fast.
Instead, this vibrant actress spends most of the film mooning over Jesse (Josh Radnor, who also functioned as the film's writer/director/producer), a returning alum of the same college who is - shock horror! - all of 35: a no-no in the landscape of a film that treats growing old as a kind of living death. While they spend considerable time quite literally doing the maths, the film's unnamed liberal arts college on this evidence not known for its numeracy, the audience may start upon calculations of their own. How much longer before Olsen's Zibby (short for Elizabeth) clocks that Jesse in no way represents the man for her?
When first encountered, Jesse is living in New York working in university admissions and pining for his own academic yesteryear and life away from the big city grind. So it's no surprise when he jumps at the chance to head back to the Midwest for the retirement dinner of one of his favourite professors (Richard Jenkins), The same visit introduces him to Zibby, a lit-loving sophomore who ups the stakes by loosening his tie and talking vampire novels and opera with someone who, we're told, is more than just a "dude". Jesse heads back east aware that he may have left something of value behind, which in turn prompts a further return visit to school and an emotional reckoning that depends a lot on the large-eyed Olsen to sustain our interest.
Liberal Arts is so obsessed with age, and its hirsute hero so dour a screen presence, that Radnor's directing very quickly acquires a sour taste. Jesse's surely too young to be having so extreme a midlife crisis, and its effect on the women, especially, in his midst is not pleasant to watch. (The collegial infighting with his male colleagues is comparatively pro forma.)
Emerging easily the worst from events is, in fact, Janney (pictured left), this film's toxic Mrs Robinson equivalent. Playing the English prof whom Jesse once worshipped and who now takes him to bed, Janney cuts a dispiriting image of the clapped-out scholar who finds no pleasure in the poetry that has been her life.
"Put some armour around that gooey little heart of yours," she snarls before sending Jesse on his way, though quite how he gets home is never made clear, even if the cliched nature of Janney's part, fag dangling perpetually from her mouth, is all too apparent.
Jesse, in case you're curious, does find a soulmate by film's end in the form of fellow bookworm, Ana (Elizabeth Reaser), whom he wins over by telling her that she's "age-appropriate", which in the context of this film would seem to be about the only thing that counts. Romantic, eh?
Watch the trailer for Liberal Arts
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