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Movie review: 'Liberal Arts' gets an A for effort, C for execution

Posted 3:01pm on Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012

Unrated (adult themes); 97 min.

Liberal Arts is a light and lively comedy of manners about college, literature and a midlife crisis that hits earlier than expected.

The bookish group at the heart of this talky film -- Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron and Allison Janney -- is having such a grand time trading tart exchanges that its mood proves infectious. The sparring helps offset some of the contrivances that make Liberal Arts less buttoned up than it should be -- so an A for effort and a C for execution.

Radnor, who also writes and directs, plays Jesse, a guy caught in a conundrum. He's a university admissions counselor in New York City, now 35, but not yet able to let go of a lingering nostalgia for his Midwest college days. He accepts an invitation to a retirement dinner for one of his favorite English professors, Peter Hoberg (Jenkins). While New York has been giving him a rough time -- he's just out of a relationship, a coin-laundry thief makes off with his clothes -- Jesse's alma mater embraces him.

The film shifts from fond memories to a more thorny present when Jesse meets a fetching young student, Zibby (Olsen), who also loves the Romantics. There is an undeniable something between them. Just what that something is, or can become, remains uncertain. Zibby is 19, and it has been 16 years since Jesse was that age.

Olsen continues to show that her breakthrough in Martha Marcy May Marlene was not a fluke. She has a gift for finding the right note for her characters, and she's made Zibby just innocent enough and astute enough to be a compelling complicating factor.

Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano

-- Betsy Sharkey,

Los Angeles Times

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